Learn More about Palmyra and Restoring the Atoll

Purpose

The purpose of the Palmyra Atoll Restoration Project is to rebalance the atoll’s terrestrial ecosystem and prevent the extinction of the Central Pacific moist tropical island ecotype.

The project is expected to result in biodiversity benefits for seabirds, plants, native rainforest, terrestrial invertebrates, and other components of the atoll’s terrestrial ecosystem. This multi-phase restoration project involves invasive species removal and/or control, as well as restoring the native forest plant community, endangered and extirpated (locally extinct) bird species, and the original hydrology of the atoll. The first step in the process is removal of all nonnative, invasive black rats.

Partners

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Island Conservation (IC) have embarked on this ambitious program to improve seabird nesting success and promote the natural restoration of the tropical rainforest at Palmyra Atoll. FWS administers most of the atoll as part of its National Wildlife Refuge System; TNC, which owns Cooper-Menge Island and operates a small research field camp, is a co-manager. Island Conservation (IC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing extinctions by removing invasive species from islands.

Location

Palmyra Atoll–comprised of approximately 618 acres of emergent lands–is located about 1,000 miles southwest of Hawai‘i in the Central Pacific Ocean and is part of the Line Islands archipelago. Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2001, includes approximately 446 acres of emergent land and 503,963 acres of submerged lands, reefs, and waters out to 12 nautical miles from shore. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, created in January 2009, includes the refuge and also extends protection out 50 nautical miles from the shore. Palmyra is close to the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone and receives an average of 175 inches of rain per year.

A Special Place

Palmyra Atoll has one of the best remaining examples of a tropical coastal strand forest found in the Pacific and one of the last predator-dominated marine ecosystems in the world. Many nationally and internationally threatened, endangered, and depleted species thrive at Palmyra Atoll and its neighboring Kingman Reef National Wildlife Refuge, including sea turtles, pearl oysters, giant clams, reef sharks, coconut crabs, a large diversity of fishes (at least 418 species), and marine mammals. Large schools of rare melon-headed whales reside outside the atoll, as well as a newly rediscovered species of beaked whale. Extensive coral reef flats surround Palmyra, supporting three times as many coral species as found in Hawai`i, and the entire Caribbean. Palmyra supports 10 nesting seabird species, including one of the largest Red-footed Booby colonies in the world, and the largest Black Noddy colony in the Central Pacific.

The Pacific Islands function as an essential migratory habitat for maintaining global shorebird populations. The rocky shoreline and extensive sand flats that are exposed at Palmyra during low tide are important foraging areas for several wintering migratory shorebirds, including large numbers of rare Bristle-thighed Curlews. Palmyra is the only moist tropical atoll ecosystem in the Central Pacific whose natural resources are not being impacted by growing human populations. Although past human activities on the atoll have caused some problems, we have the ability to resolve those issues and restore the natural ecosystem.

Restoration

The partners propose a multistage restoration project where each action synergistically builds on the next:

  • Removal of introduced black rats from Palmyra Atoll.
  • Reduction of the invasive coconut palm canopy and restoration of the native forest community.
  • Translocation of two endangered, insular bird species that are at risk of extinction in their current ranges: the endemic Line Island Reed Warbler and the Tuamotu Sandpiper; both are internationally listed as endangered.
  • Active restoration of Palmyra’s extirpated seabird colonies.

Other activities in the future could include restoring the original hydrology of the atoll’s lagoons by removing causeways constructed during World War II.

Invasive, Nonnative Rats

Rats are well known to have severe negative effects on the ecosystems they invade and there is extensive literature on the negative impacts these mammals have on islands throughout the world. Seabirds, native crabs, and plant populations are severely affected by rats. Rats are thought to be responsible for the absence of several species of burrow-nesting seabirds breeding on Palmyra Atoll, including shearwater and petrel species that are often observed offshore. Rats on Palmyra also been observed to prey upon ground-nesting and tree-nesting birds, particularly Sooty and White terns, consuming eggs and chicks.

While green turtles have rarely been documented nesting at Palmyra, rats have been documented killing and consuming sea turtle hatchlings elsewhere. Black rats at Palmyra have also been observed attacking land crabs and there is evidence that they are also being consumed by rats. Rats also eat the precious seeds and seedlings of native trees and have been shown to limit native tree recruitment. Rats commonly carry parasites and recent studies have found that the parasites that accompanied rats to Palmyra also use the native geckos as hosts.

Although no one can be certain, we believe rats may have been introduced to the atoll by the military during World War II. Beginning in 1939, Palmyra was heavily used by the Navy as a base until the end of the war.  Approximately 6,000 military personnel were stationed on the atoll for several years.

Project Status – Final Environmental Impact Statement

In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) which explores alternatives for how to deliver rodenticide to all the rats on the atoll while minimizing harm to the ecosystem. One of the primary purposes of the FEIS is to evaluate potential effects of each alternative method on the environment. Public input was sought prior to the development of the draft EIS during a public scoping process (January 14 to March 1, 2010). The draft EIS was released for a 45-day public comment period from February 25 through April 11, 2011. The comments received and Service responses are presented in the FEIS.

Four alternatives are presented in the FEIS. Alternative A is a no action alternative, and Alternatives B, C, and D, are action alternatives. Alternative C is identified in the FEIS as the Preferred Alternative. In the Preferred Alternative C, the Service proposes distributing brodifacoum and mitigating risks to vulnerable shorebirds. The potential impacts of each alternative were assessed, and, where appropriate, mitigation measures identified to avoid impacts or reduce their magnitude and intensity.

The FEIS is intended to inform the public of the proposed action and alternatives; address public comments received during the public comment periods; disclose the direct, indirect and cumulative environmental effects of the proposed action and each of the alternatives; and indicate any irreversible commitment of resources that would result from project implementation.

Copies of the final EIS may be obtained by any of the following methods:

Service’s Website: http://www.fws.gov/palmyraatoll/rainforestrestoration.html
E-mail: pacific_reefs@fws.gov . Include “Palmyra rat project” in the subject line.
Fax: Attn: Susan White, 808.792.9586.
U.S. Mail: Pacific Reefs National Wildlife Refuge Complex,
300 Ala MoanaBlvd., Room 5-231, Honolulu, HI 96850.


Please visit FWS website at http://www.fws.gov/palmyraatoll/.

For more information, visit TNC’s website at http://www.nature.org/wherewework/asiapacific/palmyra/ and on Island Conservation’s website at http://www.islandconservation.org/where/?id=23.

To learn more about research on Palmyra Atoll, please visit www.palmyraresearch.org.