Working in the field of conservation, habitat restoration, and ecology, the questions of “What do you do exactly?” and “Why?” tend to crop up consistently. Why hike for miles and miles in the wind and rain? Why place metal bands on birds (and the follow-up question: “Why do you always seem to have bird poop on you somewhere?”)? Why pull this plant over here and not that one over there?
Field work, conservation, stewardship, and research sometimes seem like obscure adventures into wild places. Armed with a backpack stuffed to the brim with equipment, GPS and radio strapped to my belt, binoculars and a camera slung around my shoulders, and a tattered field notebook and pencil in my pocket, I look like I’m about to embark on a most exotic safari—but really, I’m heading out to do surveys of invasive plants across Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). We may use a myriad of tools and equipment, but the idea behind most of them is the same: observation. Part of our work is to obtain an understanding of the world around us, to determine the parameters, scope, processes, and pieces of an ecosystem, akin to figuring out the function of the all of the cogs in some great machinery. Conservation comes into play when that machinery starts to sputter or other issues begin to flare up—we are here to maintain, to fix. We seek to become stewards of the environments in which we interact and foster a connection to those where we live. That’s conservation in a nutshell. So what pulls us to this kind of a career, where we are on the look-out for problems, caught in a never-ending process of fixing, healing, and helping?
A Mōlī / Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) found this tray of native Mauʻu ʻakiʻaki / Button Sedge (to be outplanted by volunteers) within seconds of putting it on the ground. This is why habitat restoration is so critical to Midway Atoll NWR’s Biology Program mission! Photo credit: Kristina McOmber / Kupu / USFWS.
This is an important note to make—conservation sometimes feels like an insurmountable task. Progress is slow to see and it is difficult to visualize success as well long-terms goals and objectives—especially big-picture thinking such as habitat restoration and ecosystem processes recovery. The natural world is an uncertain place and “tinkering” with nature is a tricky affair often followed with unexpected consequences. For Midway Atoll NWR, in particular, restoration is not a straight-forward or simple process. Midway Atoll might evoke this idea of an isolated, pristine environment. However, after decades of dredging, building, digging, moving, and bulldozing, the atoll is far from it. Since the start of the 20th century, the physical shape and extent of the atoll’s islands as well as the plant communities have evolved (by mechanical means rather than natural processes), giving way to one novel environment after another—that collectively define this atoll’s layered landscape. So where do we go from here? How do we restore an environment that is so drastically different than it was a century ago to a functioning ecosystem? What delineates a functioning ecosystem from one that is not quite so? These are the questions that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff tackle—and us Kupu interns and volunteers try to implement the solutions.
One staff member, though, deserves some special recognition. This month, we bid a sad farewell to Midway Atoll NWR’s Acting Refuge Biologist, Meg Duhr-Schultz as she moves onwards and upwards with her career and returns to the mainland to tackle restoration ecology in eastern Washington. For more than 2 years, Meg has wholly dedicated her life to this atoll, serving as both the Refuge’s Biologist as well as the field station manager for Tern Island, another USFWS station in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge). Meg is a fearless biologist, gladly, enthusiastically, and whole-heartedly diving into the all of the Refuge’s unique biological resources and challenges, from spraying invasive plants from dusk until dawn to rehabilitating Laysan Ducks sickened by botulism outbreaks at the peak of summer. She has taught us what it means to truly be passionate about conservation—that it takes patience as well as time to understand the system as a whole. She is persistent and determined, never gives up, and always continues to forge forward. She is an inspiration to us all and has had an immense impact on this Refuge. We will miss her dearly but wish her the best as she jumps into the next adventure; lots of aloha will follow her and all of her ecological endeavors! We know too that she will bring her zeal for wildlife management, habitat restoration, and stewardship with her, inciting that passion for conservation with those around her. Keep that fire going, Meg! And from all of us on Midway Atoll NWR, mahalo!
As Meg prepares for her next endeavor, it does make us stop, reflect, and ponder on what conservation means and why we’ve decided to plunge into this field of study. Thinking back on my experiences on Midway Atoll NWR, past and present, some valuable lessons in conservation come to mind. Here are the big points.
1. Sometimes, you have to stop and… kill the flowers.
Just as much as conservation is focused on protecting the unique, native, and often imperiled parts of the natural environment—it’s also about understanding what is threatening these aspects of an ecosystem, and often results in controlling or getting rid of the “wrong” things. That is to say, invasive species. This saying (“kill the flowers”) comes from a past staff member on Midway Atoll NWR, Greg Schubert (the Refuge’s previous Biological Technician), and pays homage to his commitment to controlling Verbesina encelioides, a persistent, invasive plant with vibrant, showy, sunflower-like flowers that once was the dominant land cover on Midway Atoll NWR. Native to southern North America down into Latin America and further south in arid habitat types, V. encelioides is a fast-growing annual plant that can form dense stands (sometimes well over 6 feet tall!), outcompete slower and lower growing native forbs and grasses, and seeds profusely (more than 300 seeds can be produced by one flower!). Although it is certainly admirable that a non-native species such as V. encelioides established itself so quickly and extensively across a subtropical atoll, exploiting some niche in this place’s insular ecosystem, it is also extremely problematic for surface- and ground-nesting seabird species, especially albatross. With tall, dense stands, take-offs and landings are difficult for albatross, as well as finding their nest and mate in a cornfield-like maze of sunflowers. Within the stands, with restricted wind circulation and no clear pathway to escape, unknown amounts of albatross chicks perished as well.
Along with habitat degradation, some of the most pervasive threats to biodiversity and ecosystem processes are invasive species. Although invasive plants can end up in a novel environment purely by chance (and is indeed a natural occurrence to a degree), invasive plants have spread to every nook and cranny of the world. Where people go… everything comes along with them, for better or for worse. So, part of conservation is cleaning up after ourselves. And granted—it’s not always easy to determine what is or is not native. And even non-native species can play beneficial roles in a given environment. But, in the case of Midway Atoll NWR, dealing with +200 non-native and invasive plants, we have to pick and choose our battles wisely. With limited staff, time, and resources, only certain, high-threat species are controlled and suppressed.
2. Failure is part of the job… but so is learning.
Get ready to fail. Surveys, experiments, and data collection may not always work out in the field like you expect them to. Equipment fails, weather changes, and animals are finicky and unpredictable—but you learn something from all of it. As surmised in the Hawaiian notion “ma ka hana ka ʻike”… “in working one learns.” Sometimes, those less-than-perfect experiences in the field contain an important lesson, even if it is not obvious at first. It can be easy to get stuck on the initial mistakes or frustrations, but these experiences are part
3. Conservation is about people.
Science is what drives the methods by which we ask and answer questions related to conservation, stewardship, and management practices. But, conservation is also about people. People help to restore Midway Atoll NWR bit by bit, acre by acre everyday—but we’re also part of the problem. In the past, people blasted coral in the atoll, dredged up the reef, introduced literally hundreds of exotic plants, bulldozed the island, dumped toxins and other trash, and many other activities that are part of Midway Atoll NWR’s layered landscape. However, we are also part of the solution, part of healing this place—restoring the landscape one plant at a time.
This blog post was originally featured on Kupu, a Honolulu-based 501(c)3 non-profit that empowers future generations to create a more sustainable, pono Hawai‘i. Check back here to read more stories and updates about Midway Atoll NWR.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.