• Undoing the damage of farming, domestic animals on places never meant for it
Editor’s note: The M/V Tiglax’s work as a research ship enables U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists and other agencies to get to remote parts of Alaska that would otherwise be inaccessible. First-time discoveries emerge from the Alaska National Maritime Refuge based in Homer, making it world class for research detecting ocean health. This is the second in a series of articles to describe that work en route from Homer to St. Paul.
By Naomi Klouda
In the not-too-distant past, people living near the seemingly barren islands off Kodiak, the Aleutian Chain and points in between looked at the rocky risings and saw the grasses growing wild.
If they were cattle people from the Lower 48, they thought of pastures. Not just any kind of pasture, but one fenced by the ocean. A place to raise livestock or farm fox, or both at once.
The M/V Tiglax plies thousands of miles of coast each year to supply and support research efforts meant to calculate ocean health, among its other work. But how do you notice a change in native birds without a baseline?
Islands were decimated of natural inhabitants by invasive Norway rats that got there jumping ships. Cattle, plopped down by hopeful ranchers. Foxes, raised for their luxuriant pelts. Pigs, caribou, horses – even rabbits.
This summer’s work marked a victory by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Maritime Refuge in a war with rabbits. Might not seem like a threatening invasive species, but the rabbit is a burrower that can run off ground nesters like horned puffins, storm petrels and Rhinocerous Auklets, said Steve Ebbert, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who manages the extermination projects.
Ebbert worked to rid a single island of the European rabbit over the past three years. “Finally, none were to be found on Poa Island at the end of this season’s work. Poa Island is the first one ever done in Alaska, maybe the first we know of,” Ebbert said.
The Alaska National Maritime Wildlife Refuge holds the lonely distinction of being the first to venture into its eradication projects, largely because of its unique island groups.
The refuge hires trappers and shooters through USDA Wildlife Services. In 2010, a team went in and did its work, then biologists checked back in 2011.
“There might have been only three or four left behind, but they (each female) can propagate 30 young a year. In 2011, we had about 129 rabbits remaining.”
They sent more trappers and shooters in for the rabbits in 2011. “We went back this year and didn’t find any.”
Poa Island is an islet located about a mile off the south coast of Akun Island in the Fox Islands group of the eastern Aleutian Islands. The story of how rabbits came to be there in the first place goes back to American soldiers stationed there during World War II, and a friendship with an Alaskan Native who liked to eat rabbit.
The “bright” idea
During World War II, the military extended the runway from Dutch Harbor to Hog Island for a longer landing area. These islands, like Poa, are part of the Fox Island group.
Alaska Native inhabitants were hired to quarry rock on one part of the island to fill in wetlands for the runway.
“The military guys on Hog liked rabbits. They had pilots bring back a yard hutch of rabbits,” Ebbert said. “Those guys traded or gave rabbits to fellows in the rock quarry, including one guy from Akutan Island. He took the rabbits back there and let them go on a couple of islands where he collected seabird eggs.”
One of those islands was Poa, a treeless, grassy island inhabited by a puffin colony. “In the summertime, they graze it down to a golf course green. Puffins need grass cover to get to the water, to escape the sea gulls.”
European rabbits are the “backyard” rabbits Americans usually domesticate. But they proliferated on the island for more than 60 years.
Now, biologists studying the bird colonies on Poa should see changes in population counts in the coming season, unless another challenge presents itself to their recovery on Poa.
“Time is on our side,” Ebbert said. “Within a year of some of our extermination projects, we see some species return on their own. Others take a longer time to come back.”
A big issue facing the refuge and its biologists has long been its battle with such invasive species placed on islands to proliferate inexpensively on wild grasses. They’ve done battle with the Norway rat on Rat Island, and won. Last year, the fox removal program at Kanaga Island removed its last female. They’ve transplanted the native Aleutian Cackling Goose successfully after fox removals on other Aleutian Island.
Chirikof Island, the most notorious island in question, has abut 750 ferrel cattle. Chirikof Island, near Kodiak, wasn’t made part of the refuge until 1980. By then, the cattle had inhabited it for more than 100 years.
Alaska Commercial Company acquired the assets of the Russian-American Company in 1867 when Russia sold the territory to America. In 1887, an ACC subsidiary was formed to breed blue foxes on Chirikof. Voles were imported to feed the foxes. A small herd of cattle was brought in to provide meat for the American caretakers, who disliked seal meat, according to historical accounts.
“From time to time – 1892, 1912 – the company shipped additional cattle to the island. The cattle were not landed; the crew just drove them overboard and they swam to shore. Once on land, the cattle thrived unattended on the nutritious island grasses. They also lost many traits of domestication,” wrote historian Wanda Fields.
Any possible extermination program for 750 wild cattle is fraught with problems.
MV Tiglax Capt. Billy Pepper described a logistical nightmare. “How do you get even 50 killed and harvested? Where would you process that many cattle – it would have to be done on site. Who’s going to pay for it? You’re talking tens of thousands of dollars we just don’t have,” he said.
Ebbert said the refuge has no plans at this point.
“We know feral, abandoned cattle are on that refuge island and they are causing degradation for native species. We understand the issue,” Ebbert said. The island, 15 by 7.5 miles is 33,000 acres. Erosion is increasing and grass pastures decrease, meaning the cattle are eating themselves out of a habitat. But mortality hasn’t matched with a decline in births.
Ebbert doubts that it’s good beef, since they eat seaweed.
“The Refuge was never meant to be a barnyard. It’s not supposed to have cattle and sheep on it. It’s not appropriate,” he said.
The Tiglax’s role in the invasive species eradication program is a long, varied one. The trappers who do the extermination work ride aboard the ship to get to their specified islands. The supply camps and biologists are transported to islands where they gauge the native bird populations against the estimated invasives. Both Capt. Pepper and John Faris are also skilled carpenters, able to help assemble the camps or do annual repairs after high winds yank off roofs or cause other damage.
And sometimes they’re in charge of birds.
When 50-70 Aleutian Cackling Geese were carted to Yunaska Island for its transplant, deck hand John Faris recalled caring for them during the 1,000-mile voyage off the cold lab on the ship’s aft deck. The roughest parts of the journey came along the bird’s own native coastline where they were to return after their kind disappeared from all but one Aleutian Island, Buldir.
“Aboard the ship, some of the biologists were sea sick. We had all these crates with quacking geese. The whole crew took turns caring for them,” said Faris, who completes many tasks on board but his main one is assisting Capt. Pepper for 12 hour shifts in the wheelhouse.
The crew also helped round and band wild Aleutian cacklers. “It took two days to catch them. We were running through tall grasses, using dip nets. Catch one, take it to the vet on board the boat, then go back and catch some more,” Faris said.
A bird’s return offers a chance to see full circle the fruits of their work. Eradication work to rid this species’ islands of Arctic and red foxes had been 20 years in the doing. Foxes are efficient predators. They steal eggs to eat, feed their young, or cache for future use. But the most coveted meal is nesting hens.
With fox gone, these geese from captive flocks, joined by families of wild geese transplanted from Buldir Island, would be released on islands throughout the Aleutian Chain.
Within 40 years, the once nearly extinct Aleutian Cackling goose was pronounced recovered.
“That’s some of the best ecological work ever done out there. Once the foxes got removed, all kinds of burrow nesters returned. The bird population is soaring,” Faris said.
Comments are closed