Even as the National Park Service endorsed plans for the safe removal and adoption of about 2,500 sheep from east Santa Cruz Island, animal-eradication crews from the adjoining Nature Conservancy preserve killed many of the sheep last weekend.
Conservancy official Diane Elfstrom Devine confirmed Monday that a team of eight riflemen killed sheep from the adjacent Gherini sheep ranch as the animals migrated onto Nature Conservancy property.
"There was a voluntary crew out there over the weekend," said Elfstrom Devine, a manager for the conservancy, a nonprofit organization that oversees millions of acres in ecological preserves nationwide. "Our concern is that the island not continue to be impacted by these animals."
A member of the rifle crew, John Conti of Carpinteria, said that the primary goal of the group was to shoo up to 1,000 sheep found on the conservancy property back onto the Gherini sheep ranch next door.
"That was our main purpose, but because of the rough terrain sometimes a rifle was the only practical way of dealing with them," he said. "I know some were shot, but a large majority of the sheep made it back."
Elfstrom Devine said she could not estimate how many sheep were killed, but one guest at Gherini Ranch said he counted 300 shots from the conservancy riflemen over one three-hour period on Saturday--just two days before the ranch, along the eastern 10% of Santa Cruz Island, was seized by the park service as government property.
The Nature Conservancy has killed about 30,000 sheep over the last decade on the 90% of Santa Cruz Island that it owns, and intends to kill more in future months if necessary to keep the animals from destroying native plants and overgrazing, Elfstrom Devine said.
But Kathy Jenks, coordinator of the sheep adoption program and a Ventura County animal regulation officer, called on the Nature Conservancy on Monday to stop the slaughter.
"Why do they have to be in such a bloody big hurry?" Jenks asked Monday. "We have an adoption plan, and we'll drive them off the conservancy land. What is the big rush? It's like the Nature Conservancy just can't wait to kill something."
The park service, sole owner of east Santa Cruz Island after taking the remaining one-quarter share of the property through condemnation Monday, is working with Jenks and the nonprofit Farm Sanctuary to find new homes for the ranch's feral sheep.
The park service announced last month that it would cooperate in the adoptions after it was flooded with adoption offers from citizens who did not want to see the government slaughter the animals.
However, the park service also transported members of the Nature Conservancy's rifle team to the island on Friday.
Conti said he was not sure that the rangers knew that the men would be shooting sheep. In fact, Conti said he also did not know the specifics of his weekend of volunteer service.
"I am not a hunter," he said. "I usually do bird and vegetation surveys and fire management. But there's an acute problem out there with the sheep and it requires an extra effort. Our major role was to get those sheep back on the other side, and we did that with hundreds of them."
Elfstrom Devine said that the park service often ferries conservancy volunteers to the island in a spirit of cooperation between two island owners with similar goals.
"We cooperate with each other on a number of things, and this is just one of them," she said.
Park service official Kate Faulkner, who is drafting the sheep adoption plan for the government, said she did not know that rangers had ferried the hunters to the island. She referred requests for information to the Channel Islands National Park Chief Ranger Jack Fitzgerald.
But neither Fitzgerald nor park Supt. Tim J. Setnicka could be reached for comment.
Elfstrom Devine stressed that last weekend's sheep shootings were nothing unusual--especially in the wet winter months when hunters from private hunting camps on Gherini Ranch have forced sheep to flee onto conservancy property. The conservancy's taller grass also lures the animals, she said.
Because the sheep do so much damage, Elfstrom Devine said, the conservancy cannot wait to see whether the proposed sheep adoption program comes together.
"We don't know if they're going to be successful," she said. "And we want to make sure those animals don't re-invade our property."