Helicopters, poison have no place at the Farallones

07/03/2019

The bizarre quote in your June 27 story on the Farallon Islands poison plan, from Doug Cordell, spokesman for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, that “there really has not been a groundswell of opposition and vigorous antipathy to this date” stopped me in my tracks. Mr. Cordell should remember the controversy this project created, and the public outcry expressed when it was first introduced in 2011.

I attended two meetings on the proposed project in Fort Mason, in 2011 and  in August 2013. Both were well attended by the public. The majority of attendees were shocked and opposed to the suggestion that helicopters dropping over 1 metric ton of loose poison pellets over a wildlife refuge would be considered “conservation.” Both of these meetings were Orwellian in nature—public comment was prohibited—and armed Fish and Wildlife law enforcement agents were present at the 2013 meeting. 

Public opposition to the project included a successful Change.org petition that gathered over 32,000 signatures; an online petition from WildCare; and hundreds of letters of opposition from the public. In 2014, with the support of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist and I filed a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act request to research the island eradication industry. 

The information we received back was disturbing. The documents included a law enforcement report done after the Rat Island poison drop in 2008, which listed 10 criminal offenses, including violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. The Rat Island project resulted at minimum in over 460 dead birds, including 46 dead bald eagles. And not all poisoned wildlife was accounted for. 

Internal emails released under our FOIA request show that after the failed eradication attempt on Wake Island in 2012, toxicological testing of fish was carried out by the United States Air Force, which maintains a base on Wake Island. After the fish tested positive for brodifacoum—the same poison headed for the Farallones—an Air Force official recommended a 942-day fishing ban, though it is unclear if it was ever implemented.

In 2013, the Obama administration abandoned the proposal for an aerial poison drop at the Farallon Islands as being too risky to our national marine sanctuary and posing an unacceptable threat to adjacent fragile coastal ecosystems and non-target species. Things were silent until March 2019, when Fish and Wildlife released the final environmental impact statement, surprising many members of the public who are concerned about the poison drop. 

Statements made by Fish and Wildlife and quoted in your June 27 article that “impacts will be short-term and not significant” are inaccurate and misleading. Published studies have shown that wildlife exposed to the same toxicants that will be dropped over the Farallones are demonstrating impacts to their immune systems and that genetic changes are also occurring from exposure. Since long-term, thorough ecosystem monitoring is not standard practice with island poison drops, we will never know the full extent of the damage inflicted upon fragile island ecosystems by humans attempting to control nature. 

The gull hazing program outlined is questionable and the success predicted in the final impact statement is unrealistic. I was copied on an email from a containment specialist at Fish and Wildlife that indicated that, at a minimum, 3,000 gulls would be dying very public deaths in many of the popular tourist areas of San Francisco, including Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz Island. More would die if the hazing problem was unsuccessful. 

The wildlife service is proposing the use of toxicants that are the subject of increasing scientific scrutiny and public concern due to their association with the unnecessary death of non-target wildlife during similar air drops on island locations around the world. California has outlawed the retail sale of the same toxic compounds because of the unintended damage these chemicals inflict on eagles, hawks, mountain lions, foxes, bobcats and Pacific fishers. The state currently has a bill in play, A.B. 1788, which would ban the use of these dangerous poisons. 

Is attempting to eradicate mice from an island, which historically has a 38 percent failure rate worldwide, according to a collaborative study published in 2007, even necessary? This is the most difficult question to answer, and every situation is different. Every island must be carefully studied to determine whether a specific animal, plant or insect is truly dominating the ecosystem in a negative way. While the answer may be yes from the human point of view, it is also true that species have been migrating around the globe for as long as the world has existed. If a creature is populating an island to the point that no habitat remains for anything else, then some form of control may be justified. Still, the method must be one that does not destroy the very ecosystem that we are trying to preserve.

 

Maggie Sergio is a former Fairfax resident who now lives in Aberdeen, North Carolina. A researcher of the global eradication industry, she also served on Marin County's Integrated Pest Management Commission for six years and led an effort to ban rodenticides on county lands in Marin.