What does it take to be a successful recovery biologist?
When this question was posed to me, a single word popped into my mind. But first, let me say a bit about myself. I began my career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Endangered Species Program in 1981, and I've stayed with the program ever since. The work provides not only a sense of moral satisfaction, but also, importantly for me, it is never dull. Each species has its unique set of biological traits and challenges. Figuring out how to recover each endangered species is like solving a new puzzle. So, the word that popped into my head: creativity. That's the aspect of recovery I enjoy the most.
Of course, partnership skills are also essential for species recovery. The most creative and well-written recovery plan would do no good if people aren't willing to implement it. Negotiation skills and the ability to listen are definitely needed. Two other qualities required for a recovery biologist are persistence and a talent for being an entrepreneur. A species is listed under the Endangered Species Act only after other conservation efforts have failed; if we give up, there's no other safety net. It takes talent to find conservation partners and funding sources, and to convince them about the value of their involvement in the species' recovery.
But back to creativity, and its close cousin, flexibility. Imagine recovering an endangered species as climbing a mountain. If a team member or partner suggests an alternate pathway to the summit, or if we run into a brick wall in the path we're on, can we be creative and flexible enough to find another way, while progressing ever upwards?
Creative problem solving has come in very handy in recovery actions for the short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus), or STAL for short. This bird nests primarily in Japan but forages extensively in the waters off Alaska. The largest and once the most abundant of the three albatross species in the north Pacific, STAL were decimated by feather hunters during the late 1800s, and was thought to be extinct by the turn of the 20th century. Like the dodo, STAL nested on remote islands and had no fear of predators. In fact, the Japanese name for STAL, ahoudori, means "stupid bird." Unlike the dodo, however, albatrosses are powerful fliers, and their young remain at sea for 5 to 8 years before returning to breed. In the mid-20th century, a few short-tails began showing up on the Japanese island of Torishima, one of the former breeding colonies. The Japanese were quick to realize what they had nearly lost, so they designated both the island and STAL as national treasures. But there was one slight problem: Torishima is an active volcano and could blow at any time! And just to spice things up, the ahoudori chose to nest on an unstable outwash slope. A landslide actually buried several chicks there in 2010. One other smaller STAL colony does exist, but it's on an island claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan, so visiting there is politically infeasible.
The Short-Tailed Albatross Recovery Team (START) agreed that establishing at least one additional breeding colony within part of the bird's former range would be required for recovery. The best way to do this, we thought, would be to move young (one-month-old) chicks and rear them to fledging at the new location, in hopes that they would return there to breed. STAL chicks take about 4 months from hatching to fledging, so we'd have to plan on at least a 3-month rearing period. We had no experience in raising baby albatrosses, so we looked for someone who did. Our best bet was researchers at the northern royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, New Zealand. Biologists there occasionally rear orphaned chicks or provide additional food to chicks that have lost one parent. In 2006, we acquired funding and arranged for our Japanese partners at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology (who would be the main chick-rearers) to go to the Taiaroa Head colony for training. Unfortunately (for us, not the chicks), there were no orphaned chicks or other supplemental feeding needs at Taiaroa Head that year. Here was a brick wall in our path, or at least a one-year delay, with no guarantee that there would be an opportunity the next year either.
Was there another path to consider? I put out a few feelers within the Service. Could we possibly work at the big Laysan albatross colony on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands? This proved not to be possible. However, the refuge biologist at Midway, John Klavitter, indicated that he could "spare" 10 Laysan chicks for rearing elsewhere. By a stroke of luck, Laysan albatrosses are reclaiming part of their former range on the island of Kaua'i. At Kilauea Point NWR, refuge biologist Brenda Zaun agreed to host the chick-rearing experiment. Although only four of the 10 chicks fledged, we learned to become much better albatross foster-parents, and our partners became much more engaged in the effort.
We've just finished our fourth year of STAL chick translocation at our new selected colony site, Mukojima Island, Japan, and have successfully fledged all the chicks (55 so far). We are encouraged to see some 2008 and 2009 fledglings returning to the new colony and even practicing courtship dancing!
So, my advice to recovery biologists is this: Don't be stopped by, or keep knocking your head into, those brick walls. Sit back, turn on your creative juices, and find another pathway up the hill. Your persistence will pay off!
Editor's note: In 2006, Judy was honored by the Service as a Recovery Champion for her work with the short-tailed albatross. In 2010, the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology also received recognition as a Recovery Champion for its work on this species. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/recovery-champions/index.html.
Judy Jacobs, a wildlife biologist in the Service's Alaska, Regional Office, can be reached at email@example.com or 907-271-2768.