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Off the California coast, it's alien rats versus native birds

When saving one species entails poisoning another, environmentalists begin to debate the question: Are some animals more equal than others?

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For a bird on the edge of extinction, the plan hardly seemed extreme. There were no construction projects to be halted, no parcels of prime real estate to be set aside, no logging rights to be curtailed.

To help save the Xantus murrelet, which clings to its existence on the sheer rock faces and coves of a few volcanic islands along the Pacific coast, all that needed to be done was exterminate a colony of rats that weren't native to the islands anyway.

Instead, as the National Park Service aims to go ahead with the plan as early as tomorrow, it finds venomous opposition, but from an unusual source: environmentalists.

From California's coastal islets to the Grand Canyon, such efforts to eradicate "exotic" animals – brought by humans, knowingly or ignorantly, to new habitats – are exposing a growing rift in the environmental world.

On one side are the traditional conservationists, such as the Audubon Society, which fear that exotic species like the black rats of Anacapa Island will destroy an ecosystem carefully crafted over millenniums. On the other are animal-rights activists, who stand unequivocally for the rights of each rodent and raptor.

The split has been building for a decade as concern mounts over the impact of exotic species from snakehead fish in Maryland to tree-eating beetles in New York. Now, on this spit of black rock and shrub south of Santa Barbara, these two schools of environmentalism are facing one of their most pitched battles yet.

To Gavin Shire of the American Bird Conservatory, the need for action could not be clearer. As few as 5,000 of the black-backed, white-breasted seabirds exist, all on nine islands that stretch from Mexico to California's Channel Islands.

Park officials say they have found rat droppings near scavenged murrelet eggs and telltale rat bite marks on eggs.

"The eventual cost [of doing nothing] could be extinction," says Mr. Shire, whose group supports the rat extermination.


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