San Clemente Island Goat

San Clemente Island Goat

I am not the only Laben undertaking new life stages lately. One of my sisters and her husband, aggrieved with city life, have signed a contract on a New Homestead. Though they must toil in the urban salt mines a bit longer, they’re starting to plan what they will raise on their farm. No monoculturists they! They want a blend of crops and critters adapted to the landscape, able to thrive with a minimum of artificial inputs, and generally healthier than a vast swath of cloned corn or a barn full of turkeys that can’t even reproduce without human input.

I, being incurably inclined to nosiness and procrastination, decided to get in on the act. So I bopped by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy site to see what was up. I ended up zeroing in on the Chantecler, a critically endangered type of Canadian chicken specially adapted for wintry climates. But along the way, I stumbled on the San Clemente Island Goat.

Astute birders of the Western U.S. may well have noted the first part of that name and deduced what’s coming next. I flashed back to my weekend reading on avian extinction in the U.S.

San Clemente Island. One of the Channel Islands, the southernmost. There was a subspecies of Bewick’s Wren there, a lively brown bird that thrived in the scrubby, rocky, dry climate of the windswept island. And then there wasn’t.

Because of the goats. (And sheep, and possibly pigs, but the goats are usually cited as the chief villains). Feral animals, they ate the Wren out of house and home; a bird that a 1908 (when the goats had been there only a few decades) article in The Condor described as “very common on all parts of the island” was gone by the 1940s, due primarily to habitat destruction. The habitat had gone into the stomachs of the goats.

In 1934, the Navy acquired the island for a firing range and landing strip. They ignored the goats until 1972, when someone pointed out to them that being the Federal Government and all, they needed to protect the remaining indigenous creatures of the island (which still include a distinct subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike and several other genetically unique plants and animals). The Navy acted in classic American fashion – after assessing the situation, they sold the goats they could profitably catch and shot the ones they couldn’t.

This went on for some years, the Navy busily reducing the goat population while the goats reacted by busily increasing the goat population – and by growing warier, thriftier, and harder to catch or shoot. Then, in 1979, the Fund for Animals stepped in, objecting to the killing of the goats.

Now comes the vigorous rolling of birder eyes, right? So-called animal lovers are about to sacrifice precious ecosystems in defense of cute and cuddly domestic destruction machines.

Only that’s not what happened. The courts cut a middle path; they allowed the Fund for Animals to round up and remove unprofitable goats, while recognizing that the Navy ultimately had a right to do what was necessary to protect the island. Suits and injunctions continued to occur throughout the early 80s; ultimately, about 6,000 more goats were removed alive from the island, and the remainder were killed off. In 1991, the island was goat-free.

On the mainland, many of the goats that had been adopted out succumbed to unfamiliar diseases, or were neutered or never bred; at one point the population dropped to 250. There are now roughly 400 San Clemente Island Goats in the world. And they, too, as it turns out, are a genetically distinct population; they can’t be linked to the populations of Spanish goats they were assumed to descend from. Left on San Clemente long enough to experience the genetic drift and selective pressures of island life, they’d become small, thrifty, and weather-hardy. They’d also developed excellent mothering skills and a relatively unaggressive disposition. These are genetic traits that could be useful to goats – and thus goat-herders – in many other situations. Now it’s the goats that need preserving.

So the goats are destruction machines and scrappy underdogs, heroes and villains. Which only shows how foolish it often is to project those categories, as powerful as they are, onto animals in the first place.

As an aside, this account indicates that the goats brought a species of ear mite unknown to science with them when they were removed from the island; no word on whether anyone has troubled to preserve that.

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The spikedace: tougher than the Lone Ranger

The spikedace: tougher than the Lone Ranger

The New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association and a coalition of county governments from New Mexico and Arizona recently sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that FWS overstepped its bounds in setting aside critical habitat for the spikedace and loach minnow, two threatened piscines. Not content at first eliminating the critters from 80% of their historic range, nor even at getting the critical habitat designation reduced from 900 miles to 500 miles of river, these cowboys wished to beat the tiny fish back even further, and suspend all habitat protection. Apparently humans just aren’t sucking enough water out of the southwest for inefficient and over-subsidized agricultural purposes yet.

But in one of those classic moments that old Aesop would have loved, the Center for Biological Diversity countersued and yesterday judge John Conway instead ruled that the habitat designation was probably not expansive enough, and had most likely been tainted by pressure from disgraced deputy assistant Interior secretary Julie MacDonald (who was forced to resign back in 2007 after her little habit of overriding scientist recommendations in order to produce decisions more amenable to her political overlords and their economic overlords came to light.) The current protections for the spikedace and loach minnow will remain in place while the Fish and Wildlife Service studies what more should be done.

I believe the appropriate phrase, in the parlance of our times, is “Ha-ha”.

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The Caribbean monk seal has been officially declared extinct; it holds the unlucky distinction of being the first pinniped driven into oblivion by human activities, but it seems unlikely to be the last.

This species – limpid-eyed, round-headed, and sleek, like all seals, not unlike how Kurt Vonnegut envisioned the future of our own species – needs no eulogy from me. Its greatest memorial is likely to be the remarkable and powerful The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson. A book for a species is no very fair trade, regardless of the caliber of the book, but if that’s how it has to go, the least we can do is have a really good book. And this is.

Declaring a species extinct is always an exercise in the evidence of absence, tricky and unwelcome. The seal has not been reliably seen since 1952 ( slightly less than a decade after the last confirmed nesting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana and a decade before the last confirmed sighting of the Eskimo Curlew in Texas) but it likely grew shy as it faded, and may have hung on until the 1980s.

The temptation as always is to ask if it is hiding, but it’s just that, a temptation and a dodge. In any case, the example of its close cousin the Mediterranean monk seal shows that hiding doesn’t help; that species has adapted to give birth in caves with underwater entrances, to avoid rapacious humans, but they are still a contender for most endangered mammal and bidding fair for the distinction of second pinniped to be exterminated by humankind. The New Moon’s Arms has a plot that revolves around finding things thought lost; but it also deals with real, permanent loss. The main character can’t choose what she finds again, and past mistakes can’t always be fixed. Let it stand in memoriam.

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Before there was the Great Auk, there was the California Condor. This may not be true chronologically (the Great Auk is believed to have diverged from pre-Razorbills and pre-Dovkies in the Pilocene, while the California Condor apparently came into its own in the Pleistocene) but that’s how my life went. I was a devotee of endangered animals before I became a connoisseur of extinct ones, and my idealism has not yet been fully replaced by melancholy. The baby geek who drew California Condors (and black-footed ferrets, another perennial favorite) on her book covers, who was tantalized by the prospect that she still could, maybe, see one some day even though California might as well have been the moon, still is eager for news of them.

Sometimes it’s good news.

Sometimes not so much.

“Seven endangered California condors — about 20 percent of Southern California’s population — have been found with lead poisoning.

The birds started turning up sick about a month ago during random trappings at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley.

One of the birds died during treatment at the Los Angeles Zoo and four others are still being treated there. A chick and its mother were sent to the zoo to undergo treatment…”

It really pisses me off, frankly, that this is happening. It isn’t some deep, occult mystery that lead bullets are a problem for condors and other scavengers – it’s been suspected since at least 1992 (a year when I was just starting to transition from drawing California Condors in my notebooks to tracing the Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson logos) and all but certain since 2006, when a team of researchers determined that the isotopes of lead found in released Condors matched the isotopes most commonly found in ammo.

The wheels of the law grind slow, but birds die fast, and the second that they’re dead, that’s it. A ban on using or possessing lead bullets in California Condor territory goes into effect on July 1, but the birds can’t go on a diet until then; they’ll be at risk up until the very day (and for that matter afterwards, as the bullets already in the mouldering, wasted venison that the hunters of California can’t be bothered to track will not magically disappear in compliance. Also, and I say this with all due respect, but my experience in landowner-hunter interactions has not left me with perfect faith in the inclination of “sportsmen” to adhere to the law.)

For that matter, we’ve had an inkling in general that lead was just not a good thing to scatter about the landscape. But could the ban come any sooner? No. In 2005, the California Fish and Game Commission refused to ban lead bullets – a move that, from where I’m sitting, looks like pure pocketbook. It’s not like projectiles made of other metals don’t kill the tasty venison* just as dead – but they cost more.

Yeah, I have to admit, I take this sort of thing personally. Although, as I approach my 30th birthday, a trip to California no longer seems like a lunar expedition – I’ve been a princely total of once – I haven’t seen a California Condor. And I still mean to.

*and I’ll be the first to admit that it is tasty. Apparently the Condors agree!

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