Sunday, November 18, 2001

An animal-rights group has filed suit against the Interior Department to stop a plan to kill rats that are feasting on a threatened bird species in a California national park.
The Fund for Animals says rat poison could be harmful to other wildlife on Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park off the state’s southern shore. Instead, they say the safest plan is to evacuate the estimated 2,000 black rats.
Interior officials say the rats are the main cause of the long-term decline in the population of the Xantus murrelet, which may lead to a petition for putting the ground-nesting seabird on the endangered-species list.
“These types of pointless and just plain goofy lawsuits contaminate the Interior Department and force us to take scarce money and personnel away from our real priorities of protecting species and being good stewards of the land,” said Mark Pfeifle, Interior Department spokesman.
Interior Department officials concede the rodenticide program, endorsed by the local Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy, is not a perfect solution, but say they have several backup plans to protect wildlife.
“Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and Park Service biologists tell us any potential harm to the birds is far less than that what the rats do,” Mr. Pfeifle said.
To protect native deer mice, a diverse genetic group will be taken into captivity and used to repopulate the island after the bait containing the poison decomposes. There is a danger raptors could eat the dead rats containing the poison, so they will be relocated to the mainland and rangers will be dispatched to collect the rat carcasses.
“If they can relocate the birds and the mice, we question why they are not able to humanely relocate the rats,” said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Fund for Animals. “At the very least, try and choose a toxin that is not as dangerous and indiscriminate as the specific plan they have chosen.
“Our position is that they should not throw the baby out with the bath water and air bomb the entire island in an effort to eradicate rats and harm the species they are trying to protect. It is a short-sighted and ill-conceived plan, and they simply should not go forward with it.”
Interior official Hugh Vickery said the poison would be contained in rat bait and dropped from a helicopter all over the island.
In response to the animal activists’ suggestion the rodents be relocated along with the other critters, Mr. Vickery said, “I guess I don’t even know if that’s possible.”
The plan has been put on hold until the lawsuit, filed Nov. 2 in U.S. District Court in Washington, is resolved. A hearing is scheduled Dec. 1. There are currently 2,000 pending lawsuits, contested cases and other administrative disputes involving the Interior Department.
Interior officials said the invasive species of rat is not indigenous to the island while the other birds and deer mice are. The rats are believed to have been introduced after a shipwreck or in 1939 when sheep-ranching supplies were shipped to the island.
The rats damage native plants and prey on several native species, including deer mice, the Xantus murrelet and Ashy-Storm petrel, another ground-nesting seabird, killing the adults, chicks and eggs.
“A balancing act has to be done here,” Mr. Vickery said. “We recognize this could have a negative impact on other wildlife, and we are taking steps to mitigate and reduce that impact.”

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