Honu, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle–A Conservation Success Story

By Neva Knott

I saw more honu, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtlesthis trip to Maui than I did during the whole year I lived there. Maybe because I snorkeled more. One day, I swam about 10 feet above a small specimen, following him on his morning tour of the coral reef in Ahihi Bay. The next, while snorkeling at Five Graves, I saw two turtles napping in small caves along the reef. Later that day, while body boarding and swimming at Kamaole Beach Park, a sand-covered turtle swam right past, making his way down the shoreline. He came from a black lava outcropping, where two more bobbed in and out of the waves. There were a few little boys playing in the waves, local boys, who kept yelling “shark” with nine-year-old boy abandon each time they’d see the turtle. When he swam past, one boy said to another, “Ride him.” I looked at him, knowing he knew better, and said, “No ride ’em” in my best pidgin, my way of letting him know I knew he knew better.

The last full day of vacation, my friends and I ventured to the North Shore, to Baldwin Beach. While the beaches along the south shore where I’d seen the other turtles are along the protected side of the island, Baldwin runs along the over open ocean. As I walked down that mile-long stretch, I came across a large turtle out of the water. A young woman was standing, watching. She explained to me that this same turtle had been basking in this same spot for a week or more, a spot just out of a little calm pool created by lava rock. People were concerned, and someone had called the wildlife agency. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the turtle; she seemed to need time out of the water, possibly in anticipation of laying eggs, I thought, having seen a turtle lay her eggs once, in Mexico.

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I sat and watched her bask for awhile. The combination of the trade winds, the lapping of the blue water on the black rocks, the sand on my feet, and the expression of life given by the turtle seemed to be all that existed. As I watched, another turtle swam ashore and nuzzled the one basking. He’d nudge her and she’d move closer to the water. Then the second turtle put his head upon that of the first. I don’t know if this was a sexual act or one of comfort, but it was universal in depth of emotion.

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The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to literature published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), honu populations were in severe decline in the 1960s and 1970s, due to over-harvest. Since protection was granted for the species, it has made an incredible recovery, increasing over 53 percent in the last 25 years. Not only are honu part of island lore and culture, an emblem of the islands, this recovery makes them an icon of successful conservation efforts. All it took was a change in human behavior. Now that harvesting turtles and turtle eggs is illegal, honu surround the islands.

Even though the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle populations are increasing, both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA recently published a report on the Federal Register stating, ” we do not find delisting warranted.”

Honu are part of the beauty of the islands, and their presence is a reminder that the natural world and the human world only work in balance.

Follow this link to detailed information about the natural history of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.

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Cold-stunned Turtles Find Friends Across the East

By Christine Harris

Most people think of sea turtles as exotic creatures you encounter while snorkeling off the shores of tropical islands, but many sea turtles will journey as far north as the Gulf of Maine. In fact, leatherback sea turtles will travel as far north as the Arctic Sea in pursuit of jellyfish. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded and abrupt decreases in water temperature can leave them stunned. This is what happens to dozens of sea turtles that wash ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay each fall in Massachusetts.

An adult Kemp's ridley sea turtle.  Photo courtesy of USFWS.

An adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

This fall has seen the most stranded turtles of any fall on record. The turtles are juveniles that rode the jet stream northward and have been foraging in the area during the warmer summer months. As the temperatures cool the turtles begin to head south but many of them become trapped in Cape Cod Bay. A cold snap in early November quickly cooled water temperatures cold-stunning many turtles. When they become stunned the turtles can no longer swim and are carried along by wind and currents. Fortunately, coordinated efforts from volunteers, non-profit and government organizations, and numerous facilities in Florida, North Carolina and beyond have saved hundreds of these doomed turtles.

Between November 3 and November 26 the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary with the help of countless volunteers and the Cape Cod National Seashore recovered over 1,000 sea turtles, both alive and dead. Of those turtles, around 600 were found alive. About eighty percent of the turtles recovered were Kemp’s ridleys, the world’s most critically-endangered sea turtle species, while the remainder were green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, also endangered species. Even a couple of unusual hybrid sea turtles have been found. Scientists are hopeful that the fact that such large numbers of juvenile Kemp’s ridleys have washed up could be an indicator that the species is being protected on its nesting grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

With such a large number of turtles, the small Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was soon teeming with chilled turtles. Typically stranded turtles found by the Sanctuary are brought to the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility in Quincy, Massachusetts to continue their recovery. With the unprecedented influx of cold-stunned turtles this fall, the New England Aquarium facility quickly filled and other rehab options were needed. Fortunately for hundreds of turtles, aquariums and rehab facilities across the East stepped up to take them in.

In the early morning hours of November 26, 193 Kemp’s ridleys that were at the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility were loaded into padded boxes and driven to Joint Base Cape Cod. There the turtles were loaded onto a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft that flew them to Orlando, Florida. After arriving in Orlando the turtles were distributed to seven marine animal rehab facilities in Northern and Central Florida. The same morning another fifty Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles were brought to Norwood, Massachusetts where a private pilot met them and flew them to North Carolina to be distributed to aquariums.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Though the influx has slowed, turtles are continuing to be found on Cape Cod Bay beaches regularly though at this point most that are washing up are dead. A dedicated group of people continue to survey the beaches daily in search of any survivors.

Wood Storks No Longer Listed as Endangered

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Wood Stork. Photograph courtesy of the USFWS.

By Christine Harris

We often hear stories of species teetering on the brink of extinction. Rarely do we hear positive news about the fate of a threatened or endangered species, but the continuing recovery of the wood stork (Mycteria americana) is one of those rare stories.

A large, bald, wading bird standing approximately four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the American wood stork population was drastically reduced by habitat loss and fragmentation as many of the Florida wetlands in which it bred and lived were destroyed.  This habitat loss led to a drastic population decrease from 40,000 breeding adults in the 1930s to around 10,000 in the 1970s. Today the population of breeding adults is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.

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Wood Stork Florida habitat. Image courtesy of University of Florida.

The wood stork’s population increase over the past thirty years is partially due to the fact that the species has expanded its range and established breeding colonies in new areas in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.  These new breeding colonies have helped the species to compensate for the loss of some of its historic nesting grounds in Florida. The wood stork has also expanded its wintering grounds to include parts of Mississippi and Alabama.

On June 26, 2014 Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO Sally Jewell announced that the wood stork is being downgraded from an endangered to a threatened species.  Jewell made the announcement at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Georgia where an artificial wetland created in the 1980s now harbors 800 breeding adult wood storks.  Restored and artificial wetlands throughout the wood stork’s breeding range have helped contribute to its recovery.

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Wood Storks in their habitat. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Although the population has made a significant recovery, not everyone is happy about the decision to change the bird’s status from endangered to threatened.  Florida’s chapter of the National Audubon Society has publicly decried the decision citing the decline of the species in its historic range as cause for concern.  Though the species is now breeding in areas where it didn’t when it was listed thirty years ago, many of the wetlands in which it bred historically have been further destroyed or damaged since it was listed leading to a population decline in some areas of Florida.

Although some consider the status change to be premature, the protection awarded to the species under the Endangered Species Act will be virtually the same as it was when the wood stork was listed as endangered.  The downgrade to “threatened” indicates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal agency that oversees the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, no longer considers the species to be at risk for extinction.  Thirty years ago many believed the wood stork would never see a status downgrade.  When the species was first listed in 1984 wildlife biologists feared the bird would be extinct by 2000.

 

 

A Fishy Success Story

Photo courtesy of USFWS

Photo courtesy of USFWS

By Rebecca Deatsman

Last fall I spent three days canoeing the Willamette River in western Oregon with a group of high school students. It’s a beautiful waterway, lined with state parks, and if your only experience of the region was floating down the river you might not guess that over 2 million people, 70 percent of Oregon’s total population, live in this watershed. There are 371 dams in the Willamette River basin, intensive agriculture, and thriving cities. This may sound like an unlikely setting for an endangered species success story, but this spring, that’s exactly what’s happened.

The Oregon Chub is a small, ordinary-looking fish, typically less than four inches long. It’s endemic to the Willamette River watershed, meaning it’s found nowhere else in the world. For centuries, these small fish lived in slow-moving side channels and vegetation-filled beaver ponds throughout the Willamette basin, munching on tiny aquatic invertebrates like mosquito larvae and generally not attracting much attention. However, as the river was controlled and channeled and dammed, the lazy wetlands where chubs hung out were gradually replaced by towns and farms, and their populations began to decline.

The story of their listing and eventual recovery shows how slowly the endangered species system in the U.S. works. It was first declared to be a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1982. In 1990, a professor from Oregon State University formally petitioned for it to be listed, providing data on its decline, and not until 1993 did it officially become a federally-designated endangered species. Once that was done, it took a further five years (until 1998) for a recovery plan to be written up, and critical habitat for the chub was not designated until 2010. At the federal level, the wheels of endangered species conservation turn very slowly.

However, once things finally got going, the Oregon Chub had several things going for it: it was small and uncontroversial (unlike, for example, wolves) and conserving its habitat didn’t require any major sacrifices by industries like timber and agriculture. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which manages a number of dams on the Willamette) as well as private landowners along the river system to restore and protect pockets of habitat where the fish could thrive. It was downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2010, and finally, this spring, though it will continue to be monitored, the Oregon Chub became the first fish ever to be completely removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

In the Willamette River Basin, timber, agriculture, urban areas, and wildlife all coexist within a limited area. Managing places like this will always be challenging, but the success story of the Oregon Chub provides reason for hope.

Further Reading:

When an owl species goes silent

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Spotted Owl: Photograph courtesy of USFWS

By Rebecca Deatsman

Is it ethical to kill one native species to save another? What if one is common and widespread and the other is endangered? This is the dilemma faced in recent years by wildlife managers in the Pacific Northwest as they continue the struggle to save the Spotted Owl.

First placed on the endangered species list in 1990, the Spotted Owl has become infamous as a symbol of the ongoing conflicts between environmentalists and loggers in the Northwest. Spotted Owls need undisturbed old-growth forests to thrive, but those same forests also contain valuable timber that helps support loggers, their families, and entire communities. However, habitat loss isn’t the only serious threat that the Spotted Owl is facing, and some people may be surprised by the source of its newest challenge: another owl.

Barred Owls are originally native to eastern North America, but have been gradually expanding their range west over the last century, likely due to how humans have altered habitats in the once-treeless Great Plains; they were first documented in California in the 1950s and in western Washington in the 1970s and have been increasing ever since. Barred and Spotted Owls are close cousins, both in the genus Strix, and look very similar, with dark eyes and without the distinctive “ear” tufts sported by many other owls; however, Barred Owls have horizontal and vertical barring on their breasts and bellies while Spotted Owls are more, well, spotted. (See photos.) Barred Owls are also larger, more aggressive, and can use a wider range of habitats – and when they move into Spotted Owl forests, they can easily outcompete their shy western cousins. When big, boisterous Barred Owls move into an area, Spotted Owls learn to be quiet in order to avoid them. Since owls rely on vocalizations to find mates and defend territory, an owl population that goes quiet doesn’t last for long.

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Barred Owl: Photograph courtesy of Oregon Fish and Wildlife

Trapping Barred Owls alive and moving them to a new location away from Spotted Owl habitat is difficult and costly; the only real option for eliminating them is killing them. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized a pilot project to kill eighty Barred Owls in Spotted Owl habitat in California and study the results. The experiment was a success, with Spotted Owls rapidly recolonizing sites where their competitors had been removed, and based on these results the USFWS is greatly expanding the program – last September, they announced a plan to kill 3600 Barred Owls in California, Oregon, and Washington over the next four years. The Canadian government has reached the same conclusion and last year okayed the killing of 40 Barred Owls in British Columbia, where as few as ten Spotted Owls remain in the wild.

These decisions are not without controversy. Native birds of prey, including the Barred Owl, are protected in both the U.S. and Canada under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it illegal under most circumstances to capture or kill them; the USFWS had to issue special exemptions to allow the cull to go forward. In the U.S., a group called Friends of Animals is suing the USFWS to stop the cull, saying the plan is “immoral, unethical and cruel, as well as illegal.” An online petition petition against the shooting of Barred Owls in British Columbia garnered over 15,000 signatures. Many people are uncomfortable with the government-sponsored killing of native, non-game wildlife, even with the best of intentions. Still, the cull is going forward, having begun in America near the end of last year.

It’s hard to argue with a simple, cost-effective measure that may be able to help bring a declining species like the Spotted Owl back from the brink, but it’s also understandably hard for some wildlife lovers to stomach. In this case, the owls in the old growth may be our canary in the coal mine.

As habitats across the continent continue to be altered by climate change, this is probably not the last time that two species, both considered native, will come into conflict and force wildlife management agencies to make tough decisions. In addition to reshaping our climate, the decades to come may reshape the very definition of “native,” and our concept of wildlife ethics along with it.  For now, the Spotted Owl and its habitat remain safe.

Further reading: