May 19, 2012

They're friends in deed

Federal biologists working on seabird populations are finding help from groups who back words with deeds.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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A small flock of sheep gathers on Maine Coastal Island’s National Wildlife Refuge while being herded on Metinic Island, near Rockland. The sheep were being moved to make room for seabirds expected to nest on the island.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Brian Benedict, the Maine Coastal Island’s deputy refuge manager, coordinates a sheep-herding effort on Metinic Island, which is located off the coast near Rockland.

Additional Photos Below

SAVING SEABIRDS

WHAT: The Friends of Maine’s Seabird Islands will work with the crew on the 60-foot sailboat American Promise in educating the public on marine debris.

WHEN: All day June 16 and 17

WHERE: Rockland Public Landing

WHAT ELSE: To learn more go to www.maineseabirds.org or www.rozaliaproject.org

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sign marks Metinic Island, which is the home of nesting seabirds.

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Chelsea Vosburgh, a seabird researcher for the Maine Coastal Island’s National Wildlife Refuge, works with others to set up a barrier intended to keep sheep away from the sites used by nesting seabirds on Metinic Island.

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Brian Benedict watches as stray sheep prance while coming out of the woods during the effort to move the sheep from one part of Metinic Island to another.



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