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New T.C. Boyle Book Shares Interests With Us

Novelist T.C Boyle’s new book, "When the Killing’s Done," uses California’s Channel Islands to delve into the thorny effort to restore lost habitats, a theme and a locale familiar to our readers.

Miller-McCune is pretty much a nonfiction sort of place. But a new novel by T.C. Boyle caught our eye because it covers an aspect of several real-life stories we’ve written about.

When The Killing’s Done, Boyle’s new book, looks at the efforts to restore the weedy and windy Channel Islands off California’s coast, once home to a barnyard of sheep and pigs gone wild. Amid the furious debate over whether to kill introduced species in order to protect native species and habitats, characters whose intentions are both laudable and incompatible collide. Of course, the peculiar genius of a good novelist is to spin such dry stuff into something compelling, and a quick hunt for accolades unearths plenty of them: “Among his best,” says NPR.

The novel is based on the true story of how the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy rid the islands sheep, pigs, black rats and, finally, opportunistic golden eagles, in order to give the rare island fox and some nomadic seabirds a fighting chance for survival. (Click here to hear Lotus Vermeer, Santa Cruz Island project director for The Nature Conservancy, discuss the ultimately successful restoration effort in our Curiouser & Curiouser podcast.)

Animal rights activists who opposed killing any animal, even an invasive one making life tough for an endangered one, reacted vociferously to the various campaigns against the invaders — especially the pig shooting and rat poisoning.

For full disclosure, two current Miller-McCune staffers and one freelancer covered those events for the local daily newspaper, whose owner outspokenly weighed in on the animal rights side of the equation. (We expect that the headline that Boyle credits for his quest was above one of their stories: “…I still preserve a yellowing newspaper headline from six or seven years ago (it’s pinned beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door), which reads: EAGLES ARRIVE AS PIGS ARE KILLED, a reference to the reintroduction of the bald eagle and the eradication of the feral pig.”)

Like Boyle, Miller-McCune finds the tension in habitat restoration inherently interesting, especially since in turning back the clock, you can’t get there from here.

"Restoring an ecosystem is never easy," Boyle wrote in Killing. In “The Primitive Science of Restoration,” our Melinda Burns quoted geographer Mark Rauzon, who has worked on islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean. “We’re doing island surgery. It’s ‘do as little harm as you possibly can,’ with the ultimate goal of adding more ecosystem health. It’s impossible to know how it’s going to go. We can’t really restore to anything that was in the past. We’re taking the responsibility of being practitioners for a new regime.”

And it means learning things on the fly.

In another subplot to the Channel Islands saga, native bald eagles had been extirpated thanks to DDT, abetted by egg and eagle hunters; their niche in the food chain was filled by nonnative golden eagles who found the stocks of lambs and piglets on the unrestored islands too tempting to ignore. Once those snacks were no longer available, the goldens took a liking to the cat-sized island foxes. So the restorers laboriously brought back the fish-eating bald eagles — and learned that they too didn’t mind the odd fox for supper.

“Reintroduction of bald eagles was a good idea,” conservation biologist Gary Roemer told us last year, “but maybe it would have been more efficacious to do it last. When you’re faced with these complex issues and interactions between invasive and native species, you have to consider all the potential outcomes.”

It’s the sort of quandary you could write a book about …

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