Column: Attention Farallon Mice. Toxic air drops approved


The mice lost.

The birds won.

After years of jostling and disagreement among environmentalists over the fate of thousands of mice living on the Farallon Islands west of San Francisco, the California Coastal Commission voted 5-3 on Thursday to allow the mice to be poisoned.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to load helicopters with about 2,800 pounds of a highly toxic pesticide banned on land in California and dump the poison on the mice next fall.

Most of the response to my column on the subject earlier this week was one of shock and horror of one kind or another.

“I have to say, when I first started reading your article, I thought you must be joking,” said reader Susie Harrison. “Who in their right mind would even consider dumping poison on an island that could harm wildlife, let alone pollute the soil.”

Harrison had what she thought was a better solution.

“Have you ever heard of cats?”

In a multi-hour hearing on Thursday, impassioned testimonies came from both sides, and this has been happening for a decade as different options were considered. People who care about the environment and wildlife respectfully disagree on the matter.

The problem, in short, is that mice were brought to the Farallon Islands by sailors more than a century ago. Their population rises and falls cyclically, reaching up to 60,000 each year, and they voraciously attack plants and insects. They also attract burrowing owls, which fly over from the mainland and eat not only mice but also bird eggs, including the Ashen Petrel, a candidate for the endangered species list.

There isn’t a major constituency for the mice, but interested parties are divided over whether a potent toxin is entering the food chain.

Richard Charter of the Ocean Foundation said the area around the Farallon Islands is “the most carefully protected coastal waters in the world” and he argued that “we know better than to spread this poison in a protection system”.

But conservationists, armed with reports of similar strategies being used on islands around the world, have hailed the merits of eradicating invasive species like mice to protect dwindling native life. In the Farallon plan, seagulls and other birds would be “chased” off the island before the pesticide fell, lest they eat the mice or the poison.

“The easiest way to conserve biodiversity worldwide is to protect species on islands,” said Dr. Carolyn Kurle, a professor of conservation ecology at UC San Diego, who spoke on behalf of several colleagues she identified as experts on the negative impacts of invasive species on islands.

Hundreds of threatened species worldwide have benefited from the removal of invasive mammals, Kurle said, including six birds common to the Farallon Islands — including the petrel, puffin and Brandt’s cormorant.

Coastal Commissioner Roberto Uranga said he didn’t think enough alternative mitigation options had been considered, and Commissioner Carole Groom agreed, saying of the poison plan, “I don’t think there’s going to be a happy ending.” Both voted against.

Commission Chair Donne Brownsey said she was conflicted but trusts the Coastal Authority’s insistence on safety protocols, as well as calls for a water quality plan and full monitoring of the program once it begins.

There will likely be some negative consequences from the venom drip, she said, “but we will have done our best to limit that, monitor it and make sure it stops if it doesn’t go to plan.”

After a decade of debating how to get rid of mice — a debate that included talk of contraceptive feeding — is this the end of the story?

Not necessarily.

The charter of the Ocean Foundation, which has worked for decades to establish protected status for the Farallon Islands and other marine treasures, called the vote an “embarrassing day for the Coastal Commission”. He said it’s about time the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries stepped in.

“It’s far from over,” Charter said.

Privacy and Monitoring Update: In the matter of a plan by Rancho Palos Verdes homeowners’ associations to use cameras that would read vehicle license plates as a crime surveillance tool, the Coastal Commission decided to intervene.

A permit application for the cameras has been approved by the City of Rancho Palos Verdes, but the area is in the coastal zone and the Coastal Commission is exercising its permitting authority.

A hearing will be held in the new year. Column: Attention Farallon Mice. Toxic air drops approved

Tom Vazquez

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