On the balmy last day of fall, three white-rumped mule deer skittered around a rocky mountainside, then ranged free across the upper reaches of Santa Rosa Island. Not far away on a brushy slope, two tiny foxes with reddish-brown chests lounged side by side like housedogs, passing their afternoon inside a large chain-link cage.
These inhabitants of Channel Islands National Park have vastly different origins. The mule deer are thriving descendants of animals brought to the island early in the last century to provide hunting for the owners and their guests. The 5-pound Santa Rosa Island foxes, once-plentiful natives of the island, now number only about 70 and are listed as a federal endangered species.
The fate of these two species and others, however, has been intertwined for two decades as the National Park Service has struggled to transform the remote island from a privately owned cattle ranch and hunting operation into a park that protects public access and unique natural, cultural and archeological resources.
Although the cattle were removed seven years ago, the former owners have been permitted to maintain commercial deer and elk hunting, which park officials say has been harmful to the island’s plant and animal life and restricted the public.
This unusual use of a national park took a new twist this month when Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, proposed to make the island available for hunting by military personnel and disabled veterans and to preserve the game herds.
After an outcry from Democrats, environmentalists and others, Hunter withdrew his plan from a defense bill, vowing to pursue it next year.
The history of Santa Rosa Island since it was sold to the federal government in 1986 demonstrates how difficult it has been to simultaneously manage an island as a national park, a cattle ranch and a place where some animals are protected by federal law and others are shot for sport.
Nita Vail, a former state agriculture official whose family owned the ranch and must vacate it entirely by the end of 2011, said the government made a serious mistake by making the relatively inaccessible island part of a national park and phasing out the agriculture. “It is a tragic loss,” she said. “This family cares deeply about the resources here. It was managed really well.”
Federal officials say that the island has suffered profound effects from more than a century of grazing by sheep and cattle and that the deer and elk owned by the Vails are impeding the recovery of native plants.
“They come from a ranching community,” park Supt. Russell Galipeau said. “They see the land differently than the Park Service. That’s why there are conflicts.”
Santa Rosa, the second-largest of five islands in the national park, covers almost 83 square miles and is about 26 miles off the coast, where it often is raked by northwest winds. Its arid landscape stretches from white beaches, tide pools and sea-sculpted bluffs to rolling grasslands, rugged canyons and two peaks of well over 1,000 feet.
The island has proved to be a trove for scientists. The most complete pygmy mammoth skeleton ever found was discovered in 1994, officials say. And 13,000-year-old human remains -- the oldest in North America -- were unearthed in 1959.
The island’s Torrey pines are remnants of an ice age forest, and there are rare and endangered plants found nowhere else, including the Santa Rosa Island manzanita and the soft-leaved paintbrush.
Santa Rosa is dotted with hundreds of archeological sites where Chumash Indians lived and were buried. And other relics were left by Spanish explorers and missionaries, as well as Mexican and American sheep and cattle ranchers.
“There is a highly significant archeological record on those islands, the cultural resources there are extremely intact and rare, and the fossil record ... is unique,” said John Johnson, anthropology curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. “It is not just any empty island.... It should be treated as a national treasure.”
Starting in the early 1900s, the Vail & Vickers Co. grazed cattle on the island, shipping them to market by boat.
The beginning of the end of this tough, romantic wranglers’ life came in 1980, when Congress included Santa Rosa in the new Channel Islands National Park over the objections of Al and Russ Vail, twin brothers who ran the ranch.
But with help from allies in Congress, the Vails had their ranch designated the first private property to be purchased for the new national park.
Although they sold the island for $30 million in 1986, they retained the right to use a 7.5-acre parcel that included a historic ranch house for up to 25 years. And a series of five-year permits granted by the Park Service allowed them to continue their ranching and hunting operations
Former Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), who sponsored legislation creating the park, said he and Park Service officials intended to allow the former owners to keep their lifestyle. “One reason that it would be a park is because the landowners had treated the assets so well,” said Lagomarsino, a friend of the Vails who hunted elk on the island before it became a park.
The law creating the park stated that the former landowners’ activities could continue if they were compatible with the Park Service’s mission.
But current park officials say that the public essentially has been barred from more than 90% of the island during hunting seasons that last from August into December to avoid hunting accidents.
The setup was unusual, park officials say. Hunting in national parks is rarely allowed. The deer and elk introduced decades earlier were considered private property, not the government’s. And the Vails were allowed to keep these nonnative animals in the park for a private operation that annually charged dozens of hunters thousands of dollars each but paid the government nothing.
Nita Vail -- a former assistant agriculture secretary under former Gov. Pete Wilson and now executive director of California Rangeland Trust -- said hunting operations commonly supplement ranching income and help manage wildlife. And she said her family has tried to cooperatively share the island with the Park Service, the public and researchers.
In the mid-1990s, the Park Service tried to toughen the permit terms after evidence mounted that the cattle and hunting operations were harming vegetation and riparian areas.
“There was absolutely no restriction on how the island would be used by any of the livestock or wildlife,” said Mack Shaver, superintendent at the time.
The Park Service was under pressure from state water-quality officials who had ordered officials to stop cattle from fouling streams. Later, the National Parks and Conservation Assn., an environmental group, filed a lawsuit alleging that cattle, deer and elk were harming the island’s rare species. And the Vails unsuccessfully sought a court order to block Park Service rules that would reduce the three types of animals.
After the litigation was settled, all cattle were removed in 1998 -- the last roundup.
Looking back, former park Supt. Tim Setnicka, said he believes the Vails took good care of the land, or so many rare plants would not have survived. “Nobody ever gave them credit,” he said. “The Vails went from being heroes [for selling their ranch] and good stewards to ‘Cattle ranching is bad and we have to stop it.’ ”
Kathryn McEachern, plant ecologist and botanist for the U.S. Geological Survey here, said that livestock grazed by the Vails and earlier owners wiped out much of the native vegetation, allowing alien grasses to cover most of the island.
“The cattle are gone, so the effects are reduced,” she said, “but with the continuation of the deer and elk, the island recovers at a slow rate.... It may be too slow for some of the rare and endangered plants.”
Under the settlement, the Vails are required to limit the elk and deer to a total of about 1,100 and the herds, starting in 2008, will be reduced by 25% a year. That would eliminate them by the end of 2011 -- unless Rep. Hunter is successful in his attempt to preserve the herds for continued hunting by the military. Meanwhile, park officials say that riparian areas and native grasses have been making a comeback since cattle were removed. And they are monitoring the effects of deer and elk on endangered plants.
The survival of Santa Rosa Island fox, added to the endangered species list in 2004, remains the most serious concern.
A decade ago there were probably more than 1,000 foxes on the island, said Kate Faulkner, the park’s chief of resources management. “In 2000, we got down to 14 foxes.”
Using a captive breeding program, the Park Service has been able to bring the number to 71 -- almost half still in captivity, the others equipped with electronic collars in the wild.
Officials say they believe that golden eagles that expanded their range to the island are the cause -- and that feral pigs and fawns from the nonnative mule deer helped sustain the predators. “We know of no other cause of that decline,” Faulkner said.
Nita Vail questioned whether there was any connection between her family’s longtime hunting operation and the loss of foxes. “We’ve been on this island since 1901,” she said, “and we’ve never seen the foxes disappear.”
The foxes are one of the main attractions for the 6,000 visitors who come by small planes and boats.
Kevin Katz, a Venice carpenter, made the trip by kayak in October then hiked the island. He saw hunters, mule deer and elk, but no foxes. However, he did see a partial tusk of a pygmy mammoth embedded in a bank. “It is a magical place,” he said.
Like Katz, Julie Tumamait of Ojai Valley does not want to see access restricted, but she has a special reason for going there. She is chairwoman of the Barbareno / Ventureno Band of Mission Indians, and her Chumash ancestors lived on the island.
“Man cannot be in a place without leaving evidence behind,” she said. “There are ... shells, stone-carved effigies, ornamentation, seashells [from] necklaces. Shards from the manufacturing of arrowheads or drill bits.... There are sacred sites.”
Park officials said that after the Vails leave at the end of 2011, they hope to bring more people to the island by converting ranch buildings to overnight accommodations and a museum on the island’s heritage, including ranching. They also envision van service for visitors.
“The government owns the buildings now, but [the former owners] are in possession,” park chief Galipeau said.