Wednesday, December 19, 2007

CALIFORNIA NEWS: Plan to Remove Deer from Santa Rosa Island Clears Hurdle

WASHINGTON — Congress appears on the verge of overturning a year-old federal law that critics say would in effect have allowed deer and elk hunting to continue indefinitely on Santa Rosa Island.

Language that would repeal the law and allow for the herds' removal from the island has been included in a $500 billion, end-of-year spending bill that Congress is expected to approve this week.

The House passed the bill Monday night on a vote of 253-154. The Senate is expected to give its approval later this week.

"This marks the end to a long battle over Santa Rosa Island," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who inserted the language into the massive spending bill during negotiations between the House and Senate.

The Santa Rosa language is part of a 1,482-page bill that covers the budgets for every Cabinet except the Pentagon. Because it is included in the broader budget bill, opponents will have little, if any, opportunity to strip the language from the legislation.

President Bush said Monday he is hopeful he can sign the bill, but only after Democrats agree to accept funding for U.S. troops in Iraq.

If approved, the measure would mark a huge victory for environmentalists and other groups who have been battling for years to get the non-native deer and elk removed from Santa Rosa by the end of 2011, as mandated by a court settlement.

Santa Rosa, which sits off the coast of Ventura County, is part of Channel Islands National Park.

Ron Sundergill of the National Parks Conservation Association said the Santa Rosa language in the spending bill "would turn around something that shouldn't have been done in the first place.''

"It is a huge victory for all Americans who own the national parks and should be able to use the national parks at all times," Sundergill said.

Lawmakers have been battling over the future of the park for more than two years, when California Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, began pushing legislation to allow the deer and elk to remain on the island permanently.

The herds are owned by Vail & Vickers, a company that runs a commercial hunting operation on the island. Hunter has said he wants the animals to remain on the island so members of the military and their families can continue to take part in the trophy hunts.

The federal law, passed last year at Hunter's urging, rescinded the court settlement and would have allowed the deer and elk to stay on the island permanently. While the law says nothing about the hunting operation, critics have argued it would in essence allow the hunts to continue indefinitely.

Vail & Vickers has said it has no desire to continue the hunting operation beyond 2011.

Regardless, the new legislation pushed by Feinstein and other congressional Democrats would reinstate the terms of the court settlement, facilitating the herds' removal and ending the hunting operation after 2011.

"Santa Rosa Island is a jewel in our national park system and should be open to all of our people, not just a select few," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who had worked with Feinstein to overturn the law.

"With this legislation, we are correcting a mistake that should never have been made," Boxer said.

Rep. Lois Capps, who had pushed similar legislation in the House, said the repeal of the federal law would guarantee that the court-ordered settlement will be fully carried out to protect Santa Rosa and provide unrestricted access to the island year-round after 2011.

Most of the island is closed to the public for four to five months of the year because of the hunts.

"As someone who's visited Santa Rosa Island and witnessed its beauty and rare archaeological and natural resources, I know we have to do all we can to protect this unique national treasure for future generations," said Capps, D-Santa Barbara.

Channel Islands National Park spokeswoman Yvonne Menard declined to comment directly on the legislation because it is pending.

But, she said, until the animals are removed and the hunting operation ends, "much of the island will remain closed to the public for nearly half a year."

"We're very anxious and eager to make this island, which has spectacular resources, available to the public full time for their enjoyment," Menard said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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