The Navy, facing a dilemma, has decided to give a reprieve to several hundred wild goats that were threatened with a firing squad for nibbling away at a southern California island.

Four months ago, the Navy announced plans to send a shotgun-toting "environmental consultant" in a helicopter to kill the feral goats of San Clemente Island, a rugged, volcanic piece of land that it owns 75 miles offshore from San Diego.

The goats have been on the island since the 1800s, when Spanish fishermen trawling off the California coast left some there as a source of food. But now warships practice gunnery and pilots do aircraft landing exercises.

Citing the Endangered Species Act, the Navy said the estimated 1,600 goats were eating four species of protected plants, which are food for two threatened species of birds and an endangered lizard. The Navy said that state and federal environmental agencies had called on it to comply with the law.

But the Navy soon found itself stuck between what a spokesman called "the rock and the hard place" of animal rights activists.

Fund For Animals appealed for clemency, offering to catch the goats and put them up for adoption. Cleveland Amory, the fund's president, said, "We objected to the cruelty of shooting an animal from the air. It's a grisly thing, killing mothers and their kids. The bullets would be raining down, knocking off tails and putting out eyes."

What really galled Amory was the Navy's use of the Endangered Species Act to justify killing the animals.

"The endangered species argument is nonsense," he said. "One of the birds that is endangered eats lizards and another bird, which also [is] endangered. When was the last time you heard of a goat eating a bird?" Amory found a sympathetic audience with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who intervened in 1983 to stop military researchers from shooting dogs to study their wounds. A day before the "aerial shooting" was scheduled to begin on Jan. 4, Weinberger agreed to give the FFA until March 1 to rid San Clemente of the goats.

Throughout February, FFA experts flew over the island in a helicopter, catching the goats with nets shot from a four-barrel rifle. Costs of the operation were shared, with the Navy paying $50,000 and the FFA, $60,000.

By the end of the month, however, only 871 of the animals had been captured. The FFA argued that it could have cleared the island if it could have operated in an area used for target practice, and asked for another stay of execution. Two weeks ago, the Navy agreed to keep its guns silent for another netting period this summer. Amory, however, is confident that by summer, his group will be able to clear San Clemente and place the goats with California families.

More than 600 of the goats rounded up in February have new homes, he said. The FFA requires that adopting families have at least half an acre of land and sign a contract promising that their goat will be "accorded affection, respect and dignity." The group charges a $35 "adoption fee" for a nanny goat, and $25 for a billy goat