LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) _ A state agency is investigating the deaths of 19 wild vultures at Walt Disney World's Discovery Island during a trapping-and-removal operation for the unwanted predators.

Disney spokesman Charlie Ridgway acknowledged Friday that about 15 vultures died of heat exhaustion in a storage shed while awaiting transfer to a nearby wildlife refuge.

''We are cooperating fully in the investigation'' by the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Ridgway said. ''We had, and still have, a problem with the vultures. We did relocate a number of them and - purely accidentally - about 15 of the vultures died of heat exhaustion in the hot summer heat.''

Curator Charles L. Cook of Discovery Island received an emergency federal permit May 24 to relocate up to 100 of the aggressive scavenger birds that were bothering visitors and threatening rare birds and animals on the 11-acre sanctuary and tourist site.

A subsequent report filed by Cook said 149 vultures were captured, according to a story for the New York Times Regional Newspapers. Other Disney documents show 19 vultures died in the trapping operation, 18 were released and 112 were moved to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

Ridgway said he didn't have details of the operation, but the number of vultures specified in the federal permit was exceeded through a misunderstanding and there was no intent to harm any of the vultures.

Cook could not be reached for comment.

While common in Florida and other Southern states, the large, black vulture is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Violations can bring up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine for individuals and a $10,000 fine for corporations.

''They perform an extremely valuable function in cleansing the land of dead animals,'' said Phil Million, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The vultures have become an increasing problem at Discovery Island, where they are attracted by the food supply around the island and a nearby campground, Disney officials have said.

In letters to wildlife officials, Disney said the vultures have attacked Galapagos tortoises and brown pelicans, consumed large stocks of animal feed and even torn apart furniture at the park.

''Discovery Island is to these birds like Social Security in your senile human population ... They never had it so good,'' veterinarian E.E. Schobert wrote in a letter that Disney filed with its request for state assistance.

Walt Disney World has acquired a reputation for innovative environmental and wildlife projects, including the training of monkeys for use by paraplegics.