METINIC ISLAND – The work of federal biologists trying to bring seabird populations back to Maine’s vast island network is a job littered with unexpected problems and roadblocks.

The wild sheep on Metinic Island last week were a good example.

The biologists went out to round up the wild flock and move it to the south end of the island during the seabird nesting season, which runs through August. But the plan went awry on the 300-acre island when the sheep took to the woods.

“This never happens. Last year I was walking along carrying a lamb,” said USFW biologist Linda Welch after scrambling through thickets and swamps.

Such setbacks are part of the work biologists do trying to grow the number of seabird species, like common and Arctic terns. It’s a constant challenge when those populations can fluctuate from 700 to 200 nesting pairs, as was the case with terns on Metinic in recent years.

But the job has gotten a bit easier with the growing support the service has gotten from the Friends of Maine’s Seabird Islands, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting the island refuge.

The Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge is one of six USFW refuges in Maine. But the other five refuges are in contained areas. The Maine Coastal Islands refuge represents 56 islands spanning the entire Maine coast, 11 of which are managed for recovering seabird species.

Until recently, the USFW team in Rockland was based out of a rented office on a cul-de-sac, out of the public view.

Two weeks ago that changed when the team moved into a stately white mansion close to the Rockland public boat launch, an ideal home for an agency charged with protecting Maine’s seabirds.

And the friends group was critical in helping USFW acquire its new office and first visitor center.

“The new center would have never happened were in not for the friends. They got it and secured it while USFW came up with the funding to reimburse them,” said refuge manager Brian Benedict of the roughly $700,000 purchase.

More and more, federal and state agencies have friends groups that assist in funding and in helping with projects that park managers can’t tackle because they lack staff. That’s true at Fort Knox, Bradbury Mountain State Park and Acadia National Park, where the Friends of Acadia have raised $1 millions in grants and lobbied Congress on behalf of the park.

The Friends of Maine’s Seabird Islands is a newer and smaller version, established nine years ago and with only one part-time paid position. But already they have provided laptops for the refuge’s 10 summer interns; purchased important nesting seabird signs to alert boaters; lobbied in Congress for a wilderness designation for some of the islands; and secured the new visitor center, Benedict said.

“The refuge doesn’t have funds to staff a visitors center. Until they can do it in five or six years, we will do that, too,” said Friends executive director Stephanie Martin.

This summer, the group will hold more education seminars, which will increase awareness of the new visitor center as well as the work of the wildlife biologists.

“We could do a better job with outreach. I go into the grocery store in Milbridge and people ask, ‘Who are you?’ We’re the largest landowner in Steuben,” said Welch, a 12-year veteran of the service in the Downeast office.

The friends’ helping hand with public outreach lets biologists focus on the work of restoring and researching Maine’s nesting birds, which amounts to a huge game of catch-up.

“Historically there were terns on 95 percent of the islands. Now they are on eight islands,” Welch said.

Moreover, the work to grow the seabird numbers on Maine’s 11 reclaimed islands presents constant challenges, as the sheep roundup last week proved.

For 10 years, biologists have gone out to Metinic to move the sheep kept by one of the few summer residents to the inhabited part of the island so the sheep don’t trample tern eggs during nesting season. The danger in the sheep disturbance threatens all the work the biologists do on the islands fighting off natural predators, such as black-backed gulls, mink and snakes.

Last week, the biologists went out to drive the sheep from the northern end to the southern end of the 300-acre island, on which the service owns 150 acres. But when biologists traveled out Monday to prepare for the roundup by putting a gate up, they found most of the flock of 200 had moved to its summer pasture, so they fenced off those sheep.

That seemed to save them time. But Tuesday the task of herding a flock of 23 sheep with seven people turned into a game of chase through the woods, as the timid sheep ducked into thickets and under pine trees.

The job should have taken an hour. It wasn’t until four hours later that Benedict was raising his hand in celebration.

It was a small victory, but it eliminated one more threat to the terns.

“When we first started in 1998, nobody thought the sheep had any negative effect. But what we found was the terns were coming off their nests swooping and diving at the sheep. And the sheep were oblivious. This takes that threat away,” Benedict said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph