JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
A remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that few people have likely heard of, Wake Atoll is not only a strategic location for the U.S. Air Force, but also a bird sanctuary, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Marine National Monument and the location of a pristine coral reef that can be studied and used as a target for repairing reefs in more highly populated areas.
Wake Atoll, made up of the tropical islands of Wilkes, Wake and Peale, is located approximately 2,138 nautical miles west of Honolulu, has a population of roughly 100 residents including Air Force personnel and American and Thai contractors, and is managed by the Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center under 11th Air Force at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
The U.S. Air Force, through partnerships with agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have worked in recent years to restore Wake Atoll to a more natural habit for its bird population and rid the three islands of invasive plant species.
“Wake is a really special place,” said John “Bird Man” Gilardi, a restoration ecologist about the creation of the bird sanctuary on Wilkes Island. “This is an incredibly important resource for these birds. It’s important to protect an area for them. They’ve evolved without humans, without any predators. It’s nice to give them at least a part of it so they can continue.”
Gilardi, who has been coming to the atoll off and on since 2002 to study the bird population, estimates that there are 12 potentially breeding sea bird species and three shore bird species that migrate up to 3,000 miles to reach the islands each year. In total, there are approximately 40,000 birds living in the bird sanctuary on Wilkes Island, an island less than one square mile in size.
The sound of the large bird population increases in intensity when crossing from Wake Island to Wilkes Island and walking towards the center of the sanctuary. The sound is almost deafening as the center of the island is reached and the immense bird habit can be seen while varying species fly around in every direction. To experience the bird sanctuary on Wilkes Island is a rare, once in a life time encounter.
“The Air Force is very supportive of my work; supporting us if we need anything,” said Gilardi of his work on Wilkes. “To create a special place to protect the birds, to allow the birds to nest undisturbed or as little disturbed as possible; it’s to the benefit of the island and the birds and the planet.”
In addition to the bird sanctuary, Gilardi, along with Mashuri Waite, a botanist who also works on the atoll, is working to eradicate an invasive tree species; ironwood trees. The trees, native to Australia and Indonesia among other regions, create forests where most plants won’t grow. This makes for a habitat that is not conducive to the natural open air environment preferred by the native birds of the atoll.
“I don’t know exactly when they were first brought here,” said Gilardi of the origin of the ironwood trees to Wake Atoll. “The story has it that a group of local boy scouts came out sometime in the ‘60s and planted a lot of them as a wind breaker.”
The initial goal is to rid Wilkes and Peale Islands of the trees as those are the best islands for the birds to use. This also helps to draw the birds away from the active runway on Wake Island.
“I think if we didn’t do it, in time, the ironwoods would just take over and there would be no bird habitat at all,” stated Gilardi. “They [the Air Force] are making it happen. They are funding it. And they’re very supportive of our work in taking care of the birds.”
Gilardi and Waite estimate that it will take five to seven more weeks to rid Wilkes and Peale Islands of the trees, with minor additional eradication efforts in the next year or two. The two-man team can use herbicide on 300 to 800 trees per day depending on the size. The team has also applied for approval to eradicate three more invasive plant species in the next year as well.
Environmental conservation on Wake Atoll doesn’t stop where the sand meets the water however. In 2009, the atoll became part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument. The marine monument reaches 200 nautical miles off the coast lines of the atoll. The first 12 nautical miles of ocean is a refuge within the monument.
“We’ve recognized that these little islands in the vast Pacific Ocean are critical for sea bird habitat and they also have coral reef that have been protected to a certain extent, much different from places that are highly populated,” stated Laura Beauregard, superintendent of the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument, when asked why Wake Atoll is special. “Around these islands, you have what it should look like. Around Wake you have these glorious coral reefs fringing around the atoll and you can see all sorts of marine life in a healthy ecosystem; the sharks, the rays, the fish, and they are interacting with the sea birds above all in an ecosystem that goes from the air to the sea.”
According to Beauregard, having the waters surrounding the atoll protected from commercial fishing is vital in order to provide the native sea birds with better food resources. The birds are able to stay closer to the islands and bring food back easier to their chicks. While the Air Force manages the atoll, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the surrounding waters. They have dive teams that routinely do surveys of the water to help in the management of the entire area.
“The Air Force has been tremendously supportive in us coming here. They’ve been a good partner,” said Beauregard about working with the military. “We’ve tried to work closely with the Air Force not only at Wake but at Johnston [Atoll] for coordinated management because we both have a similar interest in protecting the environment. If we don’t have an environment left then what are we fighting for?”