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Environmentalists, GOP at Odds Over Hunting on Calif. Island

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A House GOP bid to continue big-game hunting in a national park on a California island is angering environmentalists and parks officials, who say preserving the nonnative deer and elk herds for hunters will further damage the delicate habitat.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is seeking to maintain the hunting preserve as part of a defense authorization bill, arguing that disabled and paralyzed veterans should be able to hunt there. That would overturn a legal agreement, signed by the National Park Service eight years ago, to eliminate deer and elk from Santa Rosa Island by 2011.

Hunter, who came up with the idea while driving down the California coast with a group of Iraq veterans, said it could "provide wonderful outdoor activities for those American veterans who have protected our freedom." The House has adopted the language, but the Senate passed a resolution opposing it. Lawmakers must reconcile if they hope to pass the defense bill before adjourning for the election.

The dispute over Santa Rosa, part of the Channel Islands chain, reflects the obstacles to restoring native ecosystems.

Game animals that ranchers introduced to the 54,000-acre island more than a century ago, along with cattle and pigs, have consumed local plants and encroached on native animals. The deer and elk have attracted golden eagles, which in turn prey on the endangered island foxes. Parks officials are now trying to save the foxes, whose population has dwindled from several thousand to a few hundred, along with eight threatened or endangered plant species.

When federal officials bought the islands in 1986 for $29.5 million from the last private landowners, Vail & Vickers Ltd., they banished the cattle and pigs but allowed the former owners to conduct regular hunts in an effort to gradually rid Santa Rosa of the deer and elk.

As a result, Santa Rosa is mostly closed to the public more than four months a year so a few dozen hunters can shoot deer and elk. Hunters pay the Vail family up to $17,000 each.

Hunter's measure would require the interior and defense secretaries to make hunting available to paralyzed and disabled veterans and block the herds' impending extermination. Hunter's spokesman, Joe Kasper, said the congressman hopes to allow veterans "to hunt on Santa Rosa at little or no cost." There are currently about 1,100 deer and elk on Santa Rosa, said Jim Youngson, a spokesman for Vail & Vickers.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), who represents Santa Rosa, called the proposal "outrageous."

"This is not about veterans," she said. "It's about letting a private enterprise continue on a national park at a cost to the taxpayers."

In a recent letter to Capps, Hunter wrote that "hikers, bikers and others can enjoy their activities while disabled veterans hunt." But Capps said the provision amounts to "kicking the public out of public land."

House and Senate negotiators are set to begin negotiations over the defense bill this week.

Paralyzed Veterans of America also opposes the measure. In late July, its chief lobbyist, Douglas K. Vollmer, wrote to Congress highlighting several obstacles to Hunter's proposal, including the cost of hunting and the logistics of getting to and from the island.

"While PVA applauds the efforts of Chairman Duncan Hunter to open hunting and outdoor venues for our members, other disabled veterans and current service members," Vollmer wrote, "we have come to the conclusion that the Santa Rosa Island initiative is not viable."

National Park Service Deputy Director Stephen P. Martin testified before the Senate in May that the deer and elk must be removed for "native plants and animals to flourish on Santa Rosa Island."

"There's no question when you introduce large herbivores to a place . . . they have an array of impacts," he said in an interview. "It's really important to move forward on the course we're on."

Youngson said the former owners have not taken a position on Hunter's proposal but would like the herds to remain.

"They're not advocating for commercial hunting to continue after 2011," Youngson said. "They don't want to see the animals, and this is their word, 'slaughtered.' In the ranching families' opinion, this is their home. They don't believe they damage the environment."

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