Research vessel ties up busy season

Photo by Naomi Klouda, Homer Tribune. Capt. Billy Pepper ending the season on the R/V Tiglax.

Photo by Naomi Klouda, Homer Tribune. Capt. Billy Pepper ending the season on the R/V Tiglax.y Naomi Klouda

By Naomi Klouda

Homer Tribune

The research vessel Tiglax returned to port in Homer on Friday after a four-month season that found birds flourishing since a rat eradication effort at Hawadax Island and inspected for rebuilding vegetation on an island made barren by a 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 their return, though. Congressional sequestration threatened to shut down the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge’s work — and any 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. Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m., the Tiglax is to be open for visitors.

But the event might be canceled in the federal shutdown this week. 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.”

The refuge will make an announcement Thursday about whether it can proceed with the open house.

Going into the summer’s work, Pepper knew sequestration could impact everything from staffing the ship to the number of stops it 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, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, University of Alaska Fairbanks and U.S. Geological Survey.

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 1,000 years old, definitely a prehistoric burial,” Corbett said. The U.S. FWS consulted with the regional Aleut Corporation, which announced the body was to be reburied on Amchitka.

Finding the eroding grave was connected to a sad time in American history. The grave became known during refuge studies 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 Nov. 6, 1971, on Amchitka.

Kasatochi Volcano

The Tiglax also supported Aleutian Unit Manager Jeff Williams’ 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 the earth through uprising mountains and storms.

“The geologic time scale is different from humans. 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.”

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 detailing those studies will be published with five years of post-eruption data in a journal called Eco Science this fall, he said.

Cows on Chirikof, ‘Rat’ Island no more

This was the first year a U.S. FWS botanist was able to get back to Chirikof Island, 60 miles southwest of Kodiak Island, in the past eight to 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, Delehanty said.

Talbot’s findings aren’t yet known until he publishes his results. Last year, Delehanty inspected 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 infested with rats. 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.

Island Conservation Group biologists traveled aboard the Tiglax for their investigation.

Steve Ebbert, a lead author on studies about the effort and a refuge biologist who oversaw pre-eradication bait drops, said that 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.”

For the first time in more than 330 years, it appears that the invasive rats are gone. Aleutian cackling geese, ptarmigan, peregrine falcons and black oystercatchers are starting to nest on the island again, he said.

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