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Cleared of rodents, Rat Island gets renamed

Mike Dunham

Rat Island, a windswept hunk of tundra in the Aleutians, has had no rats for two years. Now, fittingly, it has a new official name.

On May 10, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed the name to Hawadax Island, the designation that will henceforth appear on maps and government documents.

The effort to change the name was led by Karen Pletnikoff of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

"Since the island is now rat-free," she told the board, "an appropriate Unangas/Unangan (Aleut) name should be restored to reflect both the true history of the island and celebrate the success of removing invasive species from essential habitat."

Pletnikoff demonstrated that the most attested Native name for the uninhabited island was Hawadax. A press release from the APIA says the word means "those two over there," describing two knolls that rise over the rest of the island.

The island got its European name -- followed in different languages by Russian, French and English cartographers -- from rodents that survived a shipwreck on its coast, supposedly in 1780. The rats thrived and multiplied on the previously predator-free island, devouring nesting birds, their eggs and chicks.

In 2008, The Nature Conservancy and Island Conservation, along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, undertook an intense effort to wipe out the island's rats. Hundreds of pounds of poison was dropped from the air. The project cost at least $2.5 million.

In his book "Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue," award-winning author William Stolzenburg notes that the Alaska exterminators were using techniques that had been pioneered in New Zealand.

"It was a big collective effort," Stolzenburg said. "It took a lot of planning and a lot of money. But everything didn't go as planned."

His book chronicles hundreds of dead sea birds and bald eagles found when researchers returned to the island. Tissue samples uniformly showed that the birds -- called "non-target kills" -- had ingested the poison.

"Even some of the leaders of the project were surprised to see how many birds were inadvertently killed," Stolzenburg said. "But they got every single rat. So it was a victory, but also a wake-up call. A victory with lessons."

Since the last rat died, however, birds have rebounded on the island. A remote location and rocky cliffs make it an ideal sanctuary for puffins, auklets, murres and other birds. Storm petrels and giant song sparrows, two species that had vanished during the reign of the rats, are said to have returned.

"The significance was that this was the largest rat eradication effort in North American history," Stolzenburg said. "It now opens up the door for potentially eradicating rats on other islands in the area, particularly Kiska."

With more than 100 square miles, Kiska will present a much bigger challenge than did the 10 square miles of Hawadax Island, he said.

Stolzenburg said he hopes future exterminations will be performed as humanely as possible. In his research he discovered that rats have personalities and reactions like the human emotions of "joy, fear, anxiety, sorrow and empathy."

"It was a nasty choice they were left with," he said of the project managers. "Get rid of the rats or deal with the annual carnage of native birds. They did the right thing."

So did the Board on Geographic Names, said APIA President Dimitri Philemonof, who expressed his thanks to the board for their action and to Pletnikoff for spearheading the effort.

"The board is usually reluctant to change names that have been used on maps for a while," said Yost. The monthly meetings usually deal with naming previously unnamed geographical features or, more rarely, changing names that may be considered offensive at the present time.

The group of islands that includes Hawadax, Kiska and Amchitka, among others, will retain the collective name of the Rat Islands and the adjoining Rat Island Channel will also stay on the maps.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News
Contact Mike Dunham at or on