Exactly 200 miles almost due south, as crows, last of the California Condors and first of the stealth fighter-bombers were flying, lies the island of San Clemente. It is a comma shaped piece of land not too far from Santa Catalina and its location near the naval bases at Point Mugu, Long Beach and San Diego made it useful as a target range for dive bombers and warships beginning in the mid Thirties. Early seafarers, probably 16th Century Spaniards, had stocked the island with goats and pigs and the beasts had long since gone wild and taken over the island’s ecology. In the early Seventies the Endangered Species Act identified several animals which were threatened by feral critters (and tons of detonated and dud munitions), including the Island Grey Fox, Sage Sparrow and American Bald Eagle.
Over six years beginning in 1973, the Navy ‘removed’ 16,500 feral goats from San Clemente, but more than three thousand remained, mostly holed up in steep canyons at the northern end. To take care of the rest it proposed to hunt them with high powered rifles from hovering helicopters. But an animal rights group called Fund for Animals blocked that plan with a court injunction. Headed by columnist Cleveland Amory, the Fund proposed to remove them safely by netting them from the air. Both the courts and Navy accepted the notion.
One prominent member of the Fund for Animals was Al Carlsen. Right after World War II he had traded leases he owned around Reno to railroad interests for properties they owned in the Kern River Valley. Typically checkerboarded tracts of five hundred acres, the RR land was ruggedly beautiful and, especially with regard to the most desirable pieces, largely inaccessible. Carlsen had spent decades trying to gain access to these prime places, but he was thwarted by two powerful ranchers and one tiny American Indian reservation which controlled the land and access along the South Fork of the Kern River. His battles with the ranchers, and schemes to get over, around or through their property were becoming legendary. The ranchers would not sell or lease their land in whole or in part. The Indians, holding a mere forty acre deed signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, had no intention of selling and did not fall for Carlsen’s offer to double their holdings, if only they would permit him to build a road and river bridge on their land. The struggle was monumental and trite.
During the energy crunch of the Seventies, Al tried to build a power plant on his inaccessible section of river, but could not muster the political clout to overcome ranching interests and muscle. Later he sought to build an airport on one of his flatter sections so that he could fly prospective homeowners into his prized prime building sites. But after the pristine and wonderful forest land burned twice in five years, it didn’t seem like such a great place to live anymore. Still later, when his chief opponents had died off, he did manage to have the California Fish and Game Department buy out one of the ranches and through a slick series of land swaps, finally got his access. By then, however, he was so old and ill he had to be chaffered around, his eyes so bad he could no longer see. A hollow victory at the end of the century.
But in the Summer of 1979, Carlsen’s great brainstorm centered around the Endangered Species Act, the Fund for Animals and the San Clemente Island goats.
Across the South Fork from our canyon, overlooking the river, Carlsen owned a huge chunk of mountain which was useless for much of anything. Eons ago a great corner of solid granite had broken off leaving a gigantic sheer triangular section exposed. Steep as it was, only the scrubbiest of trees grew there and once in every decade or so, a fantastic orange blanket of poppies. Carlsen proposed to transport about half of the feral island goats to this site, and hoped a court would order him a way in. Gaining access to this section gave him an opening to the land he really wanted to use. For a while it looked like he might get what he wanted. After all, the BLM was not-so-quietly rounding up Mountain Sheep from the deserts and slipping them onto the Onyx Ranch, just down the road, and the Dome Wilderness, which lay just behind Carlsen’s holdings. Wild horses and burrows and even ancient stands of pinion trees were being cleared, all craziness which evolved out of a noble, urgent notion. But timing frustrated him. The goats were coming and the courts were flooded with civil actions. Al was forced to put the poor beasts on another of his sections, the five hundred acres he owned in our canyon.
For the valley newspaper it was big news. A nationally known figure, Amory, a wealthy local philanthropist, Carlsen, a great and noble movement, Ecological Awareness, all focused attention on this little known valley which aspired to become a tourist haven. Three huge truckloads, fifteen hundred condemned, now displaced critters had found a home on five hundred pristine acres adjacent to the Sequoia National Forest. Two full-time biologists cared for the goats. It was humane. Everyone was pleased. For several days cars stopped down on the highway and people got out to look around. There was no way to get in to actually see the shaggy, red, tan and black creatures, so there was nothing to look at except the raw mountains and pretty soon everybody forgot about the goats.
In fact the goats were secreted behind a two acre hurricane fence enclosure. Two tall digger pines provided shade, possibly more than they had on San Clemente. But not much else was in their favor. The island is described as Maritime Desert Scrub. Their new home was Desert Mountain Scrub. Close? Two out of three? The difference in humidity and temperature was dramatic. Coastal California is often foggy and offshore temperatures chilly, even in Summer. Deep currents keep the water temperature in the fifties and sixties. Out here, at 3500 feet elevation, less than a hundred miles from Death Valley, humidity stays near 30 percent, daytime temperatures routinely top 100 and there is no water. The goats had no more chance than prisoners in concentration camps and they died like flies.
One morning Carole and I, having watched for weeks the clouds of dust which whirled around so continuously and so close to us, took a walk across the creek and down the slope to the shimmering fence. The dogs went with us, of course, but they were edgy and before we could actually see the famous animals we could smell them, their dead.
Up close it was easy to understand the awful odors. Hundreds of the beasts, a thousand, were crowded together, pushing against each other with heavy bodies and tiny, deer-like bones. Every shuffle raised dust on the already torrid air and saber-curved horns slashed and bashed. They bleated at each other in a desperate symphony. These were all females and rare in that they, like males of their species, sported scimitar horns.. The males had been shipped to a huge ranch in Texas. "What", Carole asked, "is humane about separating male and female?"
Two halves of a missile motor container, probably purchased at auction down at China Lake, were set out as water troughs, but they were empty, dry mud covering the bottoms. A small square trailer stood in another group of trees. The door was open. Trash and garbage were scattered around, along with a dozen or so dead goats which had been dragged out of the enclosure but not buried. Most of them had been there for several days. Nobody was around.
We heard a vehicle laboring across a ford on the creek and saw a mini-pickup grinding toward us. In the truck bed was a fiberglass septic tank about half-full of sloshing water. The vehicle stopped at the fence and two ‘biologists’, one male, one female, got out. Both of them looked like scruffy high school kids who’d drawn straws for the worst summer camp in history. The girl strode past us like a zombie up to the trailer, senses numbed to what was to follow. The boy connected up fifty feet of half-inch hose to a faucet on the tank and thrust the trickling end through the fence into one of the containers.
A stampede began before water dampened the mud. As the lead does bent to drink those behind shoved them into the trough and successive waves of the thirst maddened kept coming, pushing those in front into then out of the mud. It was a horrible sight. Kids were crushed against fencing, horns got caught in the diamond shaped mesh and necks snapped when the little bodies were twisted and wrenched. Leg bones, never meant for such trauma, broke like kindling and painful animal screams assailed the morning.
Three long truckloads of rescued goats had come in. A few months later there were not enough San Clemente Island goats left to fill one. The Fund was very secretive about their destination. Our best guess was a slaughter house.
For years afterward our dogs dragged home hairy, half skeletal skulls and curved, twisted horns, hooves and haunches which had been improperly buried or dug up by coyotes and bears. And then, after another passage of time, the land became quiet. Now it is a bird sanctuary and hardly anyone remembers a terrible summer more than twenty-two years ago.