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Return of the Natives: Paddling and Hiking Channel Islands’ Lost Gem

After nearly two centuries of ecological havoc wreaked by invasive species, the gem of Channel Islands National Park is becoming a paradise again. ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Watch a video and see two photo galleries from the island.

THE WAVES AT SANTA CRUZ ISLAND roll shoreward in gentle sets of three-foot swells. I wait until the tide is lowest and paddle hard, jabbing at a couple barnacle-encrusted rocks for balance on my way out of an SUV-size sea cave, one of 326 on the island’s cliff-riddled shore. Out on the open water, I steer my 12-foot sit-on-top kayak into a tiny inlet near Scorpion Rocks, pausing to watch a gang of California brown pelicans take flight. Two harbor seals surface and blink their bulging eyes. Neon orange garibaldis dart through the seaweed below my boat. The weather is golden, and just yards away, the island appears so quiet and pristine with California buttercups in bloom, I have a hard time imagining that this place was ever anything but a perfectly preserved haven.

But Santa Cruz, located 19 miles off the Southern California coast, wasn’t always so achingly gorgeous. In fact, it used to be a pigsty. Literally. Thousands of feral pigs, brought here first as livestock in the 1800’s, rooted through the soil, feasting on native plants, leaving barren slopes vulnerable to invasive weeds. Golden eagles followed the pigs, which were easy pickings for the large raptors. Soon, the eagles began preying on island fox, a species living nowhere else in the world, as well.

By 2004, the pigs had all but decimated nine of the island’s 12 endemic plants, and the fox population, once in the thousands, had dipped below 90. It looked like the pigs wouldn’t stop until they’d chowed right through this delicate ecosystem—an environment so unique that biologists often call it "America’s Galapagos."

In most places, it’s impossible for land managers to eradicate an invasive species completely, but on an island it’s feasible to hunt down every last one. Thanks to a joint effort between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service (which own 76 and 24 percent of the island, respectively), the pig looting was stopped in one of the biggest (and fastest) species eradication projects ever conducted. Between April 2005 and July 2006, gunners-for-hire slaughtered 5,036 pigs. After more than a year of subsequent monitoring for stray swine, officials declared biological order restored in August 2007.

In March 2008, I visited Santa Cruz Island to explore a place biologists say is more pristine than at any time in the last 170 years. I came to observe a rare phenomenon: an ecosystem reborn.

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