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Removing the Goats from San Clemente Island

The following information is in reference to the removal of feral San Clemente Island goats from San Clemente Island. Some goats were killed, some were removed alive and adopted out. Some of the goats died soon after they reached the mainland. Some were neutered. Some went on to breed and to give us the San Clemente Island goats we have today.

Please note that since 1934 the U.S. Navy has administered San Clemente Island. Their objective in the 1970's was to re-establish the native ecosystem (this has never included feral goats) as much as possible. They acted accordingly.

Others involved wanted to remove the goats alive for various reasons. They worked very hard to accomplish this.

While it has been clear all along that the goats of San Clemente Island could no longer remain there, there was much controversy over the issue of their removal. It is time to put the controversy to sleep. History is the food of men and the tomb of fools. . . it's too late to take sides, so let's just read the story, shall we?

Wanted: Dead or Alive
San Clemente Island was supposed to be a protected habitat under conservation, but it was pretty obvious that the goats on the island were devouring the place. The oats still grew well, but most of the other plants remaining on the island were things that were unpalatable to goats. Larkspur, locoweed, and cactus were abundant, but most of the yummy plants were gone. Some of those plants are now extinct. Others were well on their way. And the endangered fauna on the island would be on their way out soon, too, if nothing was done about the ongoing grazing of their habitat.

In July, 1972, the Natural Resource Management Program began. Initially, the Navy was assessing the situation, or trying to. During that midday time when the goats were full of oats and napping or chewing their cuds in the canyons, their Natural Resource Manager would hike around that 57 mi² island to count the goats. There were 15,000 goats. Maybe 18,000—it seemed that every estimate came up short.

A year later, the removal programs began. At first, the Navy contracted out with Grumbles and House. It was Grumbles who came to the island. He was a big man in his late 60's with energy in his voice and fire in his eyes. Ruddy-faced, white-haired, and as rugged and strong as the canyons themselves. The kind of man who could be pals with John Wayne, and didn't need to stand down to anyone. If he had help, no one noticed. They just noticed him. Grumbles would fence off a water hole (natural or otherwise), and build a ramp to the top of the fence. The goats would walk up the ramp and jump down to the water. Just as in Aesop's Look Before You Leap fable, the goats were trapped. Grumbles had a pickup truck and extended the bed with old plywood. He'd back it up to the fence, load the goats in one by one, and drive them away to their holding pen. Once the holding pens were full, the goats would be loaded onto trucks, the trucks loaded onto barges, and then the goats were sold live in stockyards to the highest bidder.

The next year, the Navy hired a cowboy named Tom Beene, who was accompanied by his wife, Carole. The Navy also invited in a dozen biology students from San Diego State University. They would start out in the morning, on foot, and approach a herd from downwind. Walking through the prickly cacti, they would form a human wall and slowly usher the herd toward a wing fence, and then into a gated corral. It would often take most of a day to catch a herd. Again, the goats were taken to the mainland. Beene's team brought out about 12,000 goats by the end of 1975.

There were still a few thousand goats too many. Beene helped organize sport hunting on San Clemente Island in 1976. He found hunters who were interested in hunting goats, and the Navy flew them out to the island on fixed-wing aircraft. The hunters exterminated about 4,200 goats. It wasn't enough (remember, the goats were still breeding), and the Navy still had a goat problem. They figured there were 1,500 goats left, but it was even more difficult to count goats that were hiding from hunters. There were actually about 4,500.

The next year it was official—seven species of biota on San Clemente Island were listed as endangered or threatened. The feral animals of the island were identified as a threat to their continued existence. In 1977, San Clemente Island goats were not considered to be a heritage breed worth saving. They were just goats. And goats, as a species, have never been at risk. In fact, they are almost indestructable.

Island goats tend to reach a certain population, and then the population remains steady as the island reaches its maximum capacity. An island can only support a fixed number of goats. San Clemente Island could support about 20,000, give or take a couple of goats. So as soon as the population diminished, the goats ate well and got busy. They began to increase at an increasing rate. The goats decided to try to beat the U.S. Navy. The Navy saw that slow goat removal just couldn't work.

The third program in 1979 brought helicopters. For this, the Navy contracted out with several companies that shot livestock from helicopters professionally. Really? Yes. Professional animal harvesters. Animal damage control guys. Ex-government hunters. Some pilot from New Zealand. You name it. But definately some tough screening questions. In short, Navy recruits weren't doing it, it was the private sector. They did this for 2 or 3 weeks in a row. And took out about 3,000 goats.

The math on this will never really work out, as the estimates were just estimates and the goats kept breeding through all of this. The end total of goats removed ends up being about 30,000 after all was said and done. But anyway. . .

Clapp Trap
Buck trapped on San Clemente Island. Photo courtesy of Dianne Clapp The Fund for Animals stepped in in 1979 to stop the extermination of the goats and to bring them off the island, alive, to be adopted out. Their authority to do this was granted by the same court that upheld the Navy's right to rid the island of goats due to environmental concerns. The court ruled that the Fund for Animals had a right to try to remove the goats alive and humanely. It also ruled that the Navy had a right save the indigenous species of wildlife on the island, which was threatened by the goats (goat owners have all dealt with this conflict in their own gardens).

The goat population on San Clemente Island was smaller than before. To catch these goats, one had to be fairly aggressive. At first Jim Clapp was brought in as a goat trapper. Clapp brought his wife, Dianne, and of course the little Clapps. Clapp was a prime candidate to handle the goat removal. He usually spent his time rescuing wild horses and kept a sanctuary. The decision to use Clapp was really made by the judge. Standing on a plateau with Gretchen Wyler (vice-president of Fund for Animals), the judge looked down into a canyon. He had heard that the goats stayed in the canyons, which made them difficult to catch. "Do you think you can catch them?" he asked Clapp. Clapp kicked around some nannyberries with his foot. He knew they'd come up, somehow. And how hard could it be to catch a goat when you're used to catching wild horses? "Yeah."

So the Clapp family moved to San Clemente Island. Their teenagers were home-schooled, and compared with the dry camps they had often been used to, the island seemed to be a busy place. The barracks were sex-segregated, and husband and wife teams would get lectured if caught sneaking into each other's rooms at night, but the food was pretty good. Dianne home-schooled her teenagers and kept the paperwork straight while Jim caught goats.

Clapp made the "Clapp Trap"—the goats were ushered, on foot, into a pen that had a gate that closed remotely. Over a 2-year period, he caught about 6,000 goats. After the goats were trapped, they were kept in sex-segregated pens to stop them from doing the obvious. When the pens were full, the goats were brought to the mainland. There the trucks drove off the barges to various adoption sites. The Clapps brought goats to friends' properties in a few different counties, and adopted them out. No big herds went together, just a few goats at a time to nice people who wanted a family pet. The Clapps took care of over half of the goats that they caught on the island. The rest went to the Fund for Animals' Ranch San Diego.

The goats at the Ranch San Diego were kept in sex-segregated pastures. At this time, most goats from the island were buckskin, but some had white patches "bigger than your hand." The Fund for Animals worked to find adoptive homes for the goats. There was an application form to be filled out by prospective owners. Some forms stipulated that if the new owner was adopting a goat that hadn't been neutered, the owner would neuter it. Almost all bucks were neutered before they left the ranch.

The Fund for Animals paid close attention to the herd dynamics of the San Clemente Island goats—they kept small bonded groups together and never adopted out single goats. They noted that the goats' hooves and coats, upon arrival, were all in great shape, but they had to trim hooves once the goats were living in their pastures without much rock. The bucks were not very aggressive with each other. Once the Ranch San Diego reached capacity, the extra goats were shipped to the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, which is also operated by the Fund for Animals.

The Commander of San Clemente Island saw the danger of civilians trapping goats on an island where there was unexploded ordinance. Trapping was called to a halt.

Herding goats into the Clapp trap on San Clemente Island  Courtesy of Dianne Nelson

This Won't Hurt a Bit. . .
A few people took a deep interest in the health of the goats. Any animal that had ever been brought to San Clemente Island had remained there. Isolated on an island for years. These days, one would hope that the question of "what pathogens will these goats bring to the mainland?" would factor highly into decisions about whether or not to destroy or remove the goats. But in 1980, this was apparently not a pivotal point. However, Dianne Clapp thought it bore investigation. And so did Phyllis Hickney Larsen, DVM.

Larsen was pursuing her Master of Preventative Veterinary Medicine degree, and chose to study the diseases of San Clemente Island goats. At that time there were 4,000 goats on the island, and she studied 484 of the goats that had been trapped and penned by the Clapps. Fecal samples, blood work, and visual examinations. The goats were all very healthy, although they did carry a few of the common goat pathogens that we've all seen or heard about, except for a species of ear mite that had never been seen before. To make a long story short, the goats were in better health than most mainland goats, and looked very much like the present breed, including size. There was, however, more color variation. Larsen went on to do further studies on the goats on the mainland before they were dispersed. (Larsen's work is really good reading if you can get it.)

While Larsen and her team studied the goats in the pens, the goats in the canyons were happily breeding.

Every Goat Has Its Day
In 1982, the court dismissed the injunction that had kept the Navy from shooting the goats. Six months later, extermination began again.

Now comes the tricky bit. Get this:
June 3, 1982: Navy awarded contract for shooting remaining goats. Extermination resumes.
June 10, 1982: Fund for Animals obtained temporary restraining order. Extermination ceases.
June 13, 1982: Restraining order lifted. Navy free to continue extermination.
June 15, 1982: Secretary of Defense asks Navy to discontinue extermination.
July 21, 1982: Office of the Secretary of Defense authorizes Navy to continue extermination.
August 4, 1982: Animal Lovers Volunteer Association seeks restraining order. Denied. Navy could continue extermination.

And it went on, and on, and on, for three long years.

The goats didn't care. They started having triplets.

Judas Goats
Enter Dr. Bruce Coblentz of the University of Oregon. Coblentz is no ordinary professor, he is a leading authority on island goat removal. Unusual niche, perhaps, but he can't help being really good at it.

Coblentz has had great success on many islands with a goat removal program called the Judas goat program. Here's how it works—a doe is released wearing a radio collar. She finds a hidden herd. So then everyone else can find the herd, exterminate it, and the doe goes off to find another herd. If you have a dozen Judas goats, you can expedite the process. And that's what they did on San Clemente Island. It sounds easy, doesn't it? Not if you're Dawn Seward. . .

Dawn Seward was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, studying under Coblentz. She was pursuing her M.S. in Wildlife Science, and for her thesis she elected this project. Seward was installed in a small research facility on San Clemente Island in 1989 and worked there for two years of her life. Her task was to assist, document, and evaluate the Judas goat program, and she was unaware at that time that her efforts would also, years later, help San Clemente Island goat breeders in their efforts to reestablish the breed on the mainland.

Seward would go out, when Navy operations allowed, to track the Judas goats. She could drive to the approximate location of the goats along the island roads, get out of the car, and use her receiver to triangulate signals and lock on to a Judas goat's position. But those transmitter collars don't work extremely well when rocky terrain and canyons are involved. So Seward would hike through the cacti, binoculars in hand, and try to find the goats. She did well. Every goat she found was documented, and the dossier helped the Navy determine which goats were exterminated, and which goats were left. Seward also kept careful track of which does were pregnant, or lactating, or both, and noted their ages and conditions, too. She made notes on their ranges and behavior, and compared her information to that of goats on other islands.

Seward getting the last of the goats.

Exit Stage Left
The last goat on San Clemente Island was exterminated in April 1991. Life goes on.

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Many thanks to Dianne Nelson and to Dr. Phyllis Larsen for their continued help with the history contained on this page, and for all the work they did with the goats of San Clemente Island. Thank you, too, Dawn Seward. And none of this could have been accomplished without J.

San Clemente Island Goat Association