Restoring the Balance– Restoration of Hope

By Andrew Wright

Something marvelous is happening in Gwaii Hanaas, Haida Gwaii, it is a conservation endeavor that could grace the classrooms of the elite business schools and their best practice curriculum.

In 1774 Ferdinand Juan Perez first met the Haida and despite tumultuous beginnings, post contact trade rapidly expanded – extirpating the sea otter from the archipelago and introducing rats. Centuries later these seemingly isolated biological events have become amplified, conferring a huge shift within the ecosystem’s bio-diversity. The loss of sea otters has meant the vast kelp forests that nurtured an array of juvenile species have all but disappeared, savagely consumed by an exploding sea urchin population free from predation. Above the tide line, the introduction of rats has meant that many of the archipelago’s islands that once teamed with raucous sea bird colonies have fallen silent as the rat population expanded on a rich diet of eggs, chicks and even adults.

This summer ecosystem reparations are being paid, for an eclectic collection of First Nations, government agencies, corporations, international non-profits and philanthropists have come to dispatch the invasive rat from select islands within the archipelago. It is a multi-year project that started several years ago with the visionary goal of restoring seabird colonies, in particular those of Ancient Murrelets, of which half the global population breeds only in Haida Gwaii. This diminutive and wizened-looking little seabird whose numbers have been in such substantive decline that it is now considered a Species-at-Risk in Canada and is the poster child in the battle to save ecosystems from the deleterious consequences of invasive species. The Haida nation, Parks Canada, Island Conservation, Coastal Conservation, the US government agency NOAA with financial support from Parks Canada, North American philanthropists, and the Luckenbach Trustee Council – which represents a collection US conservation focussed agencies, have all joined forces to mount an active eradication program to rid the rats from two areas within the archipelago The isolated island of Arichika, its trees ragged and worn raw by the violence of Hecate straight storms, was once home to an abundant sea bird colony visited regularly by the Haida who collected ancient murrelets for subsistence. Today, the island is devoid of breeding ancient murrelets and other seabirds like Cassin’s auklets, and storm petrels. The other is the stepping stone Bischof island chain lying to the south of Lyell Island. It too was once vibrant with the cacophony of seabirds but the goal is different here – post eradication the experimental question is if/how can rats migrate between islands that are separated by several hundred yards of frigid life sapping ocean. The question is of the upper most importance for to the east lies rat free Ramsay Island – which come April it will be teaming with nesting seabirds. But in the stepping stone chain of the Faraday-Murchison Island group, it is Ramsay that is the last and only rat free island. The lessons from Bischof campaign will guide the development of the Faraday-Murchison eradication strategy.

Imbedded with the field team I am absolutely overwhelmed by the professionalism, scientific rigor and discipline. The daily grind for this mainly female field biology team starts at 7am with a calorie laden breakfast fit for a logger or two. By eight o’clock , after an exhilarating 5 min commute, each island of the Bischof chain has one or two biologists on land hiking the trap lines. But hiking is too gentile an expression, for this is hard core bush whacking. Each island has been divided into a 50metre grid of bait stations and interlinked by the most rudimentary network of bush cut trails. Any momentary lapse in concentration is rewarded with at least a minor bruise – judging by the scraps, cuts and generally field scarred nature of the field team – forty straight days out here takes its toll. But at each bait station the science begins. Intricately designed so that only rats can access the bait, each station is reloaded with bait, and the total bait consumption from the previous 24 hours is meticulously recorded by field computer and location tagged by GPS – thus rat activity is continually monitored and the bait application can be fine-tuned as needed. Late morning a morale boosting radio call crackles from the walkie talkies announcing hot CBs (code for cinnamon buns) are going to be delivered from the field camp – a welcome calorie boost. As the daily grind of humping 30 pounds of gear across these islands proceeds the 5pm pickup cannot come soon enough for I am starving and shattered. Evening finds us back at base camp, “Shangri-La”, with another several thousand calorie meal before us – it disappears and we all go back for seconds. Nobody here is carrying an extra ounce of body weight – the daily caloric intake cannot keep up with the amount of physical work this team is burning.

By 7pm the decks have been cleared of dirty plates and replaced with field computers uploading data to a central computer – once backups are complete the data analysis starts. It is fascinating to watch the biologists switch from physical grind to mental gymnastics as the data streams to multidimensional graphs that illustrate how the rat populations of the different islands are responding. Discussions develop which draw quickly on the deep science foundation that has informed over three hundred different island rat eradication campaigns from all four corners of the globe. Interesting hypotheses evolve about one island and its population that is refusing to take the bait – the potential exists that these are descended from rats that survived or avoided bait during a previous but incomplete rat eradication over a decade earlier. Various plans of attack evolve but eventually, guided by infrared motion camera photographs that indicate the rats are checking the traps out, the plan settles and tomorrow the bait will be slaked with anchovy oil – a culinary offering that no rat can refuse. Meanwhile the bait uptake rate on Arichika has risen, peaked and crashed to almost zero – the team is thoroughly excited for they are within days of a possible rat free island – the first time in over two centuries (although two years of post-eradication monitoring data will be needed before the island can be officially declared rat-free).

As the field season grinds on, island by island, the rat population steadily succumbs to the inexorable onslaught from the field team’s efforts – this year’s work is declared a success which augers well for the planned effort of subsequent years. In subsequent years the recovered islands will be peppered with loud speakers faking nesting bird calls that invite others to come and prospect for suitable nest sites. The technique works extremely well for the Alaskan Rat Island in the Aleutian chain, was also rescued and within just 3 years the island’s eerily silence was replaced with resplendent bird song But the next challenge for this group is to eradicate the rats of the Faraday-Murchison island chain and protect vibrant Ramsay Island from a rat invasion. This requires a scaling-up of effort as these islands are almost 10 times the size of Arichika and the Bichofs and are treacherously rugged making a ground campaign impractical. The solution is readily available – precision GPS guided aerial helicopter baiting. It has been used to great effect on the majority of eradication campaigns conducted by Island Conservation around the world – the downside is the expense of deploying helicopters to a remote location. Despite the challenge the contributing organizations are resolved to advance the program to ensure long term success.

Resenting my pre-dawn alarm for I am shattered, I reluctantly drag myself and my camera out to try and find some great sunrise shots. By the time I get back, the camp is being broken by the management team – Laurie Wein (Parks Canada Resource Conservation Manager), Gregg Howard (Island Conservation North American Director), Jennifer Boyce, (NOAA-USA) and Chris Gill (CEO Coastal Conservation) are already loading the boat for our departure. Not an opportunity is missed, for the boat is loaded with garbage, the “management audit” trip has now saved a ton of fuel for the next garbage collection can be delayed. As we plough north across Juan Perez sound towards Queen Charlotte city I reflect with Gregg upon the complexity of this conservation program. It is a truly multi-disciplinary, multi agency endeavor with significant jurisdictional overlaps and burdened with complex logistic requirements– it is a classic recipe for inefficient and dysfunctional failure. But nothing could be further than the truth – this has to be the most well organized cooperative and efficient endeavor I have ever witnessed – it should be a case study for the Harvard Business Review, for many CEO’s and corporations could learn from the successes of this program.

Standing before iconic balance rock in Skidegate I cannot help but reflect upon the incredible program that I have born witness too over the last few days and Coastal Conservation’s tag line, “Restoring the Balance” resonates in my thoughts. Nothing could be more appropriate, for the notion of balance transcends basic ecosystem restoration. This program is a metaphor for balance because it represents the co-operative engagement of Haida and Federal governments, multi-national conservation based non-profits, corporations, Canadian and American philanthropic support all working to enhance and restore one of the world’s last biodiverse wildernesses.

The program highlights the global importance of these places and how internationally we are all responsible for their preservation. It is a showcase for productive cooperative conservation, and like the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, it is a conservation endeavor that Canadians can be proud of. It also illuminates the true nature of the cancelled pacific north coast management area project – a project that had promised a restoration of hope. A program I hope can be restored.