Xantus's Murrelet in LA Times
- Here's the latest on our "rat project" on Anacapa Island, from
today's LA Times. Everything is going very well. We've even found a
XAMU nest at Landing Cove, where the boats come in.
Rare Bird Hatches a Comeback
A plan to rid Anacapa Island of nonnative black rats was
controversial, but it appears to be working for the Xantus' murrelet
and other wildlife.
By Jenifer Ragland, Times Staff Writer
It had been 74 years since a Xantus' murrelet nest was found in the
lava rock crevices, perched high near the plateau surface of Anacapa
Island. But on May 7, a field biologist studying the rare seabird
stumbled upon one. Just 10 days later, at least one fluffy chick from
the nest hatched in the wild.
This is big news for the National Park Service, because it's a sign
that the agency's controversial plan to save the tiny bird from
extinction is working.
That plan involved killing off the murrelet's last unnatural predator
on the island: the nonnative black rat, which biologists suspect
crashed the island's fragile ecosystem in a shipwreck decades ago.
Despite protests from animal-rights groups, the park service last fall
completed a two-year project to eradicate up to 3,000 black rats from
the three islets that make up Anacapa by dropping poison-laced food
Six months later, the rats are gone, and the island environment in
which the rodents wreaked havoc is making a comeback, say officials
at Channel Islands National Park.
Researchers have found 17 Xantus' murrelet nests on the island and in
sea caves - the highest number ever recorded.
In addition, native deer mice on East Anacapa are at greater numbers
than normal for the spring, about 8,000.
And side-blotched lizards and Channel Islands salamanders are also
thriving there, as survival rates among juveniles have doubled with
the rats gone.
"The black rat was the last nonnative animal on this island," said
Kate Faulkner, chief of resource management for the park, as she
hiked up the rugged path toward Inspiration Point on a recent media
tour of the island.
Nonnative rats are responsible for up to 60% of bird and reptile
extinctions in the world, Faulkner said. Anacapa is the 76th island
in the world to eradicate rats, and the first off the coast of North
"It's a huge step forward for conservation on Anacapa and in the
United States," she said.
But critics say such a step forward comes at the expense of other
animals, including 94 birds - most of which were juvenile white-
crowned sparrows - found dead on the island after the poisoning.
Thousands of Anacapa deer mice also died.
"If the park service really wanted people to have a look at this
program, they would have invited the media out directly after the
poisoning to see dying animals everywhere," said Michael Markarian,
president of the New York-based Fund for Animals, which sued the park
service in 2001 in an attempt to halt the project.
"Seeing it six months later doesn't give you the full picture of
what's happened," he said. "It's like seeing a battlefield after the
bodies have all been cleaned up and the blood washed away."
Park service officials, however, maintain that killing the rats was
important for the long-term conservation of the island.
Biologists also say they took pains to offset the possible damage by
staggering the poison drop over two years, trapping and removing many
birds of prey and capturing more than 1,000 deer mice and then
reintroducing them after the eradication program.
"There was a short-term impact, but over the long term there will be
a net benefit," said Gregg Howald, a biologist with the Island
Conservation and Ecology Group, a partner in the project.
As the native species recover on Anacapa, Howald said, biologists are
making sure the rats are gone by putting out thousands of traps in
prime rat habitat over a sustained period.
So far, he said, "There is no sign of rats."
The project is part of an ongoing effort to restore all five of the
islands that make up Channel Islands National Park to their natural
state. Since the 1970s, the park service has worked to remove
interloping sheep, cats,
burros, rabbits, pigs and golden eagles from the islands.
On Anacapa, the eradication effort came with a $1.6-million price
tag, not including additional costs for rat prevention and future
monitoring, officials said. It was carried out by a partnership that
also included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California
Department of Fish and Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Funding comes from a court settlement stemming from the 1990 American
Trader oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, a disaster that
resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds.
Among the species killed in the spill was the Xantus' murrelet, a
nocturnal seabird that nests on only 12 islands - including Anacapa -
along the West Coast of North America. State officials have listed
the murrelet as a threatened species.
Darrell Whitworth, a wildlife biologist at the Davis-based California
Institute of Environmental Studies, has spent the last few weeks
working at night to track and monitor the secretive bird.
Nest numbers are up 50% from the previous highest number over three
years, Whitworth said.
Even more telling, he said, is the fact that biologists haven't found
a single rat-eaten murrelet egg. Before the eradication, about 60% of
the murrelet nests that were found had been destroyed by the black
rat's pin-sharp teeth.
And last week, Whitworth said, researchers came across the first
documented nest on Anacapa of a Cassin's auklet, another very rare
seabird, similar to the murrelet.
It was found on West Anacapa - on Rat Rock, which is now rat-free.
"Birds you would expect to see here are actually here," Whitworth
said. "That's a good sign for the island."