• Summer studies focused on rat-free and cattle habitats, a volcano’s revegetation, returning a 1,000-year old body to Amchitka
By Naomi Klouda
The R/V Tiglax returned to port Friday after a four-month season that found birds flourishing since a rat eradication effort at Hawadax Island and inspected for rebounding vegetation on an island made barren by volcanic blast.
Capt. Billy Pepper and his crew experienced a busy summer, hauling supplies and hosting 160 scientists and biologists. They traveled 16,400 miles, a distance equal to going back and forth across the U.S. five times.
“We went down the Aleutian Chain and over to Sitka this time, no trips north to the Pribilof Islands this year,” Pepper said. “We had good weather. Everything went pretty well.”
They weren’t greeted by good news on the return, though. Congressional sequestration shut down the refuge’s work – and all federal employees – until the funding questions are resolved. Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty was preparing Monday for whichever route lay ahead.
If allowed to keep on through a funding resolution, the public will get a glimpse at how research and coordinating are done from the ship in remote Alaska. On Saturday from 1-4 p.m. the Tiglax is open for visitors.
The event may be cancelled in a federal sequestration shutdown that will be known more about in the days ahead. On Monday, the crew finished taking equipment and supplies off the ship.
“Normally we would have two weeks to get this done. Now we’re doing it all in one day, because I don’t know if I’ve got a crew to work tomorrow,” Capt. Pepper said Monday. “I’m not going to unload the ship by myself.”
As it turned out, congressional inaction Monday night ment a close down Tuesday and Wednesday.
The refuge will make an announcement on Thursday about whether they can proceed with the open house.
If so, festivities Saturday will include a mock field camp in the harbor parking lot, ham radio operators taking calls from the harbor parking lot, exploration activities on the ship – everything from rats and foxes in the hold to diet samples in the lab and bird spotting from the flying bridge.
Going into the summer’s work, Pepper knew the sequestration could impact everything from staffing the ship to the number of stops they could make. But contract work supported the ship’s data collections for the refuge. Tiglax did the nearly $10,000 a day contract work for the University of Wisconsin, the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, University of Alaska Fairbanks and US Geological Survey.
Hiring during a time of federal new hire freezes didn’t go smoothly. Some 22 people answered to Pepper’s request for two new crew members in an advertisement, which went out locally. But too late, and the ad listed his desk phone. This means the applicants received no response to the job offer, which Pepper feels means he needs to offer an apology.
The Islands and Oceans center is shut down until further notice. The public is asked to stay tuned. Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty will be the lone person in position while the furlough is worked out by Congress.
Repatriating 1,000 year old
The research vessel hauls unusual things in the name of science. This year, the Tiglax ferried the bones of an Aleut child, possibly 1,000 years old, back to Amchitka Island in the Aleutians.
“Almost nothing is known about the individual that was repatriated. It was a child, about 12 years old. We couldn’t tell you if it was male or female,” said Debbie Corbett, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional archeologist. “It was recovered in the 1970s by a refuge employee in an eroding road cut.”
The child had been buried at a time when the island was heavily populated. “It was almost certainly less than 1000 years old, definitely a prehistoric burial,” Corbett said. USF&WS consulted with the regional Aleut Corporation who wanted the body to be reburied on Amchitka.
Finding the eroding grave was connected to a sad time in American history. The grave became known during refuge work after the U.S. set off the last of three underground atomic blasts in the remote wilderness of the Aleutian island. This third test exploded as planned on Nov. 6, 1971 on Amchitka.
The Tiglax also supported Aleutian Unit Manager Jeff William’s work checking on revegetation at the Kasatochi Volcano. It blew Aug. 7, 2008, an explosion that was large, unanticipated and completely devastating to life on the tiny Aleutian island. Prior to the eruption, Kasatochi was a thriving nesting site for hundreds of thousands of seabirds, but the eruption buried the island and the nests in dozens of feet of volcanic ash, completely destroying the local ecosystem.
“This is the fifth year since the blast. We went again this summer and there is a lot of change – very rapid change,” Williams said.
Often geologic processes are slow, reshaping earth through uprising mountains and storms.
“The geologic time scale is different from the human scale. Yet this year it’s happening on a human time schedule. Some species changed in response to the habitat,” Williams said. “Rocks shook loose that created nesting habitat for birds to return. We found the Least and Crested Auklets.”
That was good news for the resiliency of life after habitat destruction. The biologist also found bug and insect life on the rebound as a food source, and grasses growing back.
“One analogy is that it is like having a prime real estate location. People rebuild there if it’s a good location. That’s the same thing with birds. If you are in a place where you can make a living easily, you’re going to repopulate those areas,” Williams said.
For his response and work at Kasatochi putting together a team to study the post-eruption rebound, Williams was awarded the 2011 Science Leadership Award, which came with $50,000. He used the funding to help support more refuge research.
A new paper will published on five-years’ post eruption data in a journal called Eco Science this fall, he said, to details those studies.
Cows on Chirikof; Rat island
This was the first year a USF&WS botanist was able to get back to Chirikof Island, 60 miles southwest of Kodiak Island, in the past 8-10 years. The island is overrun by feral cattle transplanted there 100 years ago, a breed similar to Highland, Hereford, and Angus and slightly more similar to Siberian Yakut cattle. They are small, stocky and hardy.
Botanist Steve Talbot’s work this summer involved analyzing vegetation plots to understand the species and relative health of the plant communities, said Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty.
Talbot’s findings aren’t yet known until he publishes results. Last year, Delehanty toured the island and found little vegetation available for hundreds of cattle to eat.
“There was vegetation on a majority of the island, but it is short and not as robust as other sites that didn’t have cattle on them. (On one side of the island) there is a 500-acre chunk that is bare sand dunes,” Delehanty said.
A better story is unfolding on an island in the Aleutians once called Rat Island. It earned a new name, Hawadax (pronounced Hal-a-dax,) in May 2012 now that it is no longer rat infested. Its Aleut name means “entry” or “welcome.”
This fifth year after the 2008 rat bait project targeted the invasive Norway rat, nesting birds were found to be returning to the island.
The Island Conservation Group biologists traveled aboard the Tiglax to get the island for their investigation.
Steve Ebbert, a lead author on studies of the effort and a refuge biologist who oversaw pre-eradication bait drops said, there is no indication rats survived the eradication.
“In 2009, it appeared a few were on the island and so they set out traps. In 2010, August, we went back again. There was no indication that there are rats,” Ebbert said. “This most recent trip was to document what is happening in the absence of rats and to make sure they weren’t there.”
This means for the first time in more than 330 years, the invasive rats are gone. Aleutian cackling geese, ptarmigan, peregrine falcons and black oystercatchers ae starting to nest on the island again.
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