LAGUNA BEACH, Calif., May 16 - An effort to re-establish a much-loved population of bald eagles in the rugged hills of Santa Catalina Island is in trouble.
Eagles thrived on the island 26 miles across the San Pedro Channel from Los Angeles until they were devastated by the dumping of millions of pounds of DDT and other pollutants off the Channel Islands from the 1940's to the early 70's. DDT causes birds to lay eggs with shells too thin to protect developing chicks.
After painstaking work by conservationists for more than 20 years, five pairs of eagles now nest on Catalina. And since 2001, some $250,000 a year - proceeds from an environmental lawsuit against a leading coastal polluter - has gone to an innovative program meant to build on that success.
To protect the eagles' thin-shelled eggs, researchers remove them from the nest and replace them with copies so the eagles will not miss them. The real eggs are incubated and hatched, and the chicks are returned to their nests. This year, 11 eggs were taken, 9 were fertile, and 3 hatched into chicks.
Now the program is in danger of losing its financing to other islands. Its administrator, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says an underwater plume from the world's largest known DDT contamination site, off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, is still too toxic to allow a sustainable population of nesting birds on Catalina.
If suggestions put forth in a management plan are accepted, the focus would shift to Santa Cruz and other northerly Channel Islands that are farther from the source of pollution.
Greg Baker, manager of the money from the suit, says the funds are need to cover projects like rebuilding other seabird populations, nonnative animal control and re-establishing healthy fisheries on a range of islands from off Santa Barbara to northern Mexico.
"It doesn't appear the situation is changing for the Catalina pairs," he said, "and continuing to use the settlement funds for that case is essentially taking funds from all these other resources we have a mandate to work on."
Members of the Catalina Island Conservancy, which manages wildlife programs on the island, say the issue remains unresolved.
The director of the conservancy, Dr. Ann Muscat, said that it was too early to tell whether the eagles on Catalina could begin to reproduce successfully and that there was no research to show that newly settled juvenile eagles on Santa Cruz would fare any better when they reached nesting age in a few years.
Dr. Muscat added that because Catalina suffered the most DDT damage, it should receive the most reparations.
Mr. Baker and a biologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Annie Little, said that if a self-sustaining population could be established on Santa Cruz, those birds could populate all the Channel Islands. It is highly unlikely, they said, that golden eagles will move to Catalina because there is not enough prey.
Mr. Baker said he knew Catalina cherished its eagles.
"That's one of the many factors that needs to be weighed in making an overall conclusion," he said. "But some members of our trustee council have also expressed concern that this program, by its nature, is placing bald eagles into an environment where they continue to be exposed to contamination."