May 24, 2005
Catalina Bald Eagle Program Faces Funding Cuts
LOS ANGELES -- An important program that restored bald eagles to Santa Catalina Island after they were wiped out there 40 years ago is in danger of losing its funding to breeding sites on an island farther north.
For nearly two decades, biologists have worked to get the adult eagles on Santa Catalina to reproduce without human assistance after contamination from chemical dumping caused their eggs to weaken and dehydrate.
Now, a council that funds the project with money from an environmental settlement says the program will never succeed because toxin levels are too high. It wants to shift the funding to a similar program on Santa Cruz Island about 60 miles to the north, where chicks may have a chance without human help.
The proposal has infuriated environmentalists who have dedicated years to trying to save the popular Santa Catalina bald eagles and haven't given up on them yet.
"Catalina is the site where the damage was done, it was at the epicenter" of the chemical dumping, said Ann Muscat, executive director of Catalina Island Conservancy. "Just walking away doesn't seem acceptable."
The breeding effort on the rugged island off the Los Angeles coastline is currently funded by a series of settlements with Montrose Chemical Corp. and others that dumped millions of pounds of toxic chemicals in the ocean from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The settlement totals more than $140 million, with Montrose agreeing to pay about $75 million in 2001.
The chemicals - DDT and PCBs - wiped out bald eagles on Santa Catalina and did tremendous damage to coastal fisheries and seabird populations on the chain of eight Channel Islands off Southern California.
Thirty years after the dumping stopped, there are now 20 bald eagles on Santa Catalina, including five nesting pairs. Their eggs laid are so fragile that they have to be removed immediately by humans and incubated in captivity. The chicks are then returned to the nests by helicopter about 10 days after they hatch, along with a shell from a goose egg to trick the parents.
Biologists had hoped DDT levels would drop enough on Santa Catalina to eventually allow eagles to breed unassisted - but that hasn't happened.
About $1.25 million has been spent on Santa Catalina since 2001, said Greg Baker, program manager for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.
Now, the restoration program trustees want to stop funding for work on the island and invest $6.2 million in a similar program on Santa Cruz Island, a smaller and more remote island off Santa Barbara, about 60 miles to the north. It's farther from the pollution hot spots so biologists believe the eagles have a better chance of success there.
Baker acknowledges that the proposal is controversial but says it's the best solution under difficult circumstances.
"The trustees are trying to find a place for a stronghold for the bald eagles somewhere in the Channel Islands, and Santa Cruz seems to be the best place for that right now," he said. "Catalina Island just isn't working."
Biologists have been introducing juvenile bald eagles to the island for three years; the oldest birds should be ready to mate within two years.
The Santa Cruz proposal is the most favored among three alternatives put forth in a restoration plan that grew out of the 2001 settlement. It includes $12 million for damaged fisheries, $6.5 million for seabirds and $300,000 for peregrine falcon restoration.
Public comment on the restoration plan ended Monday. The council will consider all the input and make a final decision sometime in the fall, Baker said.
Opponents worry that if the breeding pairs on Santa Catalina can't hatch chicks, they will leave the island - depriving the public of a valued natural resource.
More than 1 million visitors see bald eagles in the wild each year on the island, while Santa Cruz is so remote that only a handful of people visit, said Muscat, with the Catalina Island Conservancy.
"What if the program in the northern Channel Islands doesn't succeed? What if those birds also have too much DDT in their tissue? What if those eggs can't make it on their own?" she said. "We don't know what the loss of this predator will do to our ecosystem. It's a huge issue for us."
On the Net:
Montrose Settlements Restoration Program: http://www.darp.noaa.gov/southwest/montrose/
Catalina Island Conservancy: http://www.catalinaconservancy/