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Environment: Biologists fight new battle on Midway Atoll

Efforts to eradicate non-native plants on Midway Atoll will benefit birds like Wisdom, a Laysan albatross believed to be the world's oldest breeding bird.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aims to eradicate invasive plants that crowd out endangered seabirds

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — As Memorial Day approaches, biologists are waging a new battle on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific.

The enemy is an alien invasive plant — golden crownbeard — that’s shrinking vital seabird habitat in the area where the U.S. Navy defeated the Japanese fleet in June 1942, marking the turning point of World War II in the Pacific.

The Laysan albatross, the large bird immortalized by 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, depends on the island’s habitat to nest. One of the Laysan albatross females, named Wisdom by the researchers, is more than 60 years old, and is believed to be the oldest breeding bird documented by North American scientists. Two endangered species — the Laysan duck and the short-tailed albatross — have also made their home here, along with other species.

The federal biologists are banking on success, and for good reason: When fighting plant or animal invaders, islanders have an edge over mainlanders. Once they rid the island of the plant, there is little threat of re-infestation from adjacent lands. Service biologists put the principle to work in the Aleutians, when they purged Rat Island of its signature rodents and the Sanak Islands of non-native foxes — also to aid seabird survival.

Once biologists remove the tall, dense stands of verbena, they will replant the area with native plants more hospitable to nesting birds. Native plants hold island soil in place, protecting dunes and preserving and enhancing the island’s historic biological diversity.

John Klavitter, acting refuge manager at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, said the first stage of verbesina eradication — begun last year on the smallest of Midway’s three islands — is already paying off.

“This year we had the second highest number of breeding birds ever recorded: 482,000 pairs of Laysan albatross.”

The next stage is clearing verbesina from Midway’s larger Eastern Island. That $1.8 million effort, funded by the Service and private grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is projected to take five years.

“By controlling verbesina, we’re meeting our mission here to protect, preserve and enhance  native biological diversity,” said Klavitter.

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