A year ago there were just over 400 known San Clemente Island goats. That’s double the number known to exist in 2007, according to John Carroll, a Nebraska man who is part of a nation wide network of individuals and zoos trying to pull the breed from extinction’s brink.
"The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) considers them the most critically rare domestic breed of goats in the country," Carroll said. "They classify them as a feral breed. They said every available doe has to be bred. If they aren’t they will be gone in the next year. Critical is the ALBC’s highest level of awareness. That breeding approach is working because in 2007 they were down to just a little more than 200 animals but in the fall of 2008 we were up to 425."
These San Clemente Island dairy goats now live in Nebraska as part of a growing rare breed herd owned by John Carroll.
The ALBC designates a breed as being critical when there are fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and an estimated global population of less than 2,000. The Arapawa goat is the only other goat breed listed as critical by the ALBC.
San Clemente Island goats were locally plentiful as recently as 40 years ago. An estimated 15,000 were on San Clemente Island, located off the coast of southern California, in 1972. At that time the owner of the island, the U.S. Navy, began an extermination program. By 1980 an estimated 4,000 goats still remained on the island.
To continue more effectively with the goat population removal, the Navy proposed a shooting program to be conducted from helicopters. The helicopter slaughter was blocked in court by the animal welfare group Fund for Animals. Instead, under the court decision, goat trappers were brought in to remove approximately 3,000 goats from the island. Most of the goats were adopted out by Fund for Animals with agreements that the new owners would not breed them. Other San Clemente goats went directly from the barges that brought them off the island to individuals and farms.
Had the 3,000 goats been capable of breeding there would likely be substantially more SCI goats today.
"The Navy neutered all the bucks," Carroll said. "The only bucks we had were the females that became pregnant on the island and kidded off the island. We were in a buck shortage for a long time and that’s part of a genetic bottleneck we’ll be facing in the future."
The Navy’s reason for eliminating the goats from San Clemente Island is connected to the mystery of the goats. John Carroll asserts that the early Spaniards brought the SCI goats to the island. Since they had been there for 400 years the island’s ecology had adapted to them, Carroll said. In the 1970s and ’80s they were not suddenly a threat to San Clemente Island’s ecology.
"Goats were first introduced to the island from a feral population that was imported from Santa Catalina to San Clemente Island in 1875," the ALBC said at its website.
The Navy’s side of the story is that, having been on the island for less than 100 years, an exploding population of goats was destroying the island’s ecology. Thus, they undertook the removal program.
How long San Clemente Island goats had been on the island is still a matter of debate. Their origins in America are even more mysterious. John Carroll asserts that they are of Spanish origin, and are related to the Raza Moncaina goat in Spain.
"The Raza Moncaina has markings and ear set very similar to the San Clemente Island goat," Carroll said. "The numbers of the Raza Moncaina goat are no better than those of the San Clemente Island goat. The A.R.A.M.O. or Asociación de Granaderos de Caprino de Raza Moncaina is working hard to preserve the Raza Moncaina goat."
The official ALBC position seems to be, however, that SCI goats are not originally Spanish and that their origins are currently unknown. Their website refers to genetic research as the basis for that claim. However the website scigoats.org, which Carroll said is the glue that holds the growing breeder network together, appears to have more up-to-date information on ALBC’s genetic research.
"Recently, Phil Sponenberg from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, working with Spain, has been looking at goat DNA," scigoats.org said. "At first, the results were very confusing; it looked as if San Clemente Island goats were not Iberian at all. Their DNA is so far off in left field that it looked as if Alpine, Boers, and Saanens were more closely related to Spanish goats than were San Clemente Island goats. Recent findings, however, show that San Clemente Island goats are indeed of Iberian origin, but the genetic drift from their ancestors is so great, they’re barely the same goat anymore. Is it possible that this could have happened within the past 500 years? Yes, according to Dr. Sponenberg. But they are so distinct from other Spanish goats that they certainly need to be conserved as a separate breed."
The breed John Carroll and others have set out to conserve are relatively small although slightly larger than dwarf breeds. They are fine-boned and deer-like, and most have very gentle temperaments with excellent mothering abilities. San Clemente Island goats are typically red or tan with characteristic black markings.
"Part of their beauty comes from the fact that they are the closest thing we have to a wild mountain goat," Carroll said. "They still maintain some of their feral quality. They are very docile and they have a lot of personality. The bucks are not aggressive, but they don’t want to be petted or touched. I suppose if they were bottle fed they wouldn’t mind being petted but I prefer the wild quality. They do come running up when you feed them.
"They just don’t look like other goats," he said. "They have a deer-like quality. I’ve got one little baby that likes to climb the trees. I don’t know if she’ll keep that but she’s so nimble and fast. I’ve been around other goats and they all have a domestic quality. When you’re around the San Clemente Island goats you can see there is something else going on in that head of theirs."
Carroll had a San Clemente Island goat when he lived in California in the 1990s. He didn’t know what it was but he was impressed with its characteristics. When he returned to Nebraska, in recent years, he began looking for more goats like it.
"When I moved back to Nebraska I wanted to get goats again," Carroll said. "I was trying to remember what I had in California and I started doing some research on the Internet. I came across Leslie Evans’ website scigoats.org and I said ‘oh my God, that’s my goat.’ She has pages of information on the San Clemente Island goats. I had no idea what precious cargo I had back then."
Through connections Carroll made via scigoats.org, he obtained different bloodlines from Oregon—via the Sioux Falls zoo, California, and New Hampshire. His herd is small but he is working on a breeding plan, which includes an artificial insemination project with the Washington zoo.
"The long term goal is to develop them into a dairy breed," Carroll said. "They have a very high butter fat content and develop a very good udder. Once we’ve got the numbers up they have the potential for being a meat goat as well. They have a very nice frame and are well muscled."
For the time being Carroll is fully engaged in the excitement and challenge of being part of an effort to conserve a nearly extinct species with mysterious origins. His excitement is shared by others across the country engaged in the project.
"I’m just going to start raising San Clementes," Lynne Shonyo, a Minnesota farmer, said in June. "I am picking up a young doe and buckling from the zoo in Wichita, Kansas this weekend. I’m so excited to be finally getting some SCIs."