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On a late-summer morning in 2018, Paul Melovidov walked into the freezer section of the Trident Seafoods processing plant. The weather-beaten building stands where breakwater meets land in Saint Paul, Alaska, a community of around 500 residents on an island in the Bering Sea. Behind the plant, rows of colorful houses march toward green, treeless hills and the steeple of a Russian Orthodox church. Hundreds of kilometers of moody ocean stretch away on all sides. Melovidov’s flashlight beam swept the room, then paused in a far corner. At the circle of light’s center crouched a rat.
Melovidov, soft-spoken with snowy hair, is the ecosystems coordinator for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government. He’d been trying to catch the rat for a week. That might sound inconsequential, but it had big implications for Saint Paul Island, the largest of the Pribilof Islands, a critical stronghold for marine life in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Nearly 200,000 seabirds nest on Saint Paul Island’s cliffs and rocky beaches, among them murres, kittiwakes, puffins, fulmars, auklets, and cormorants. On neighboring Saint George Island, about 75 kilometers away, the number pushes past two million. Hundreds of thousands of northern fur seals gather each summer on the islands, also home to endemic species of Arctic fox, rock sandpiper, shrew, and lemming. Rats and mice don’t belong here. They can transmit diseases to other mammals, including people, damage buildings and vehicles, and foul crops wherever they make their homes. But invading omnivorous rodents wreak special havoc on islands, where native plants and animals, seabirds in particular, have no innate defenses against them.
Entire seabird colonies, even entire species, can vanish into the maw of rats’ hunger. Between 40 and 60 percent of all recorded bird and reptile extinctions since 1600 have been attributed to rats, with Norway, black, and Pacific rats the most destructive species. These losses warp ecosystems. Without seabirds and shorebirds to control intertidal invertebrates, for instance, populations can surge and decimate seaweed. Deprived of ocean nutrients found in seabird poop, island grassland can turn to tundra. Rats may have even contributed to the fall of civilization on Easter Island, devouring the environment out from underneath its human inhabitants.
And now, for the first time known, a live rat had been spotted on Saint Paul. For decades, the tribe and its partners have successfully maintained a network of traps to protect the island. Melovidov checks them regularly as part of his duties for the tribal Ecosystem Conservation Office, or ECO, where he’s worked for a decade. Melovidov is a subsistence hunter. He has called the island home for most of his 58 years, and belongs to the Unangan people—Aleut is their Western name—who have lived in the Pribilofs since the late 1700s. Standing in the doorway at Trident, he knew intimately what was at stake. Even a single pregnant female rat or mated pair is a grave threat to Saint Paul’s birds, seals, and other creatures. “That’s our livelihood right there,” Melovidov would tell me later. “[The animals are] what sustains us here.” They don’t just make the island beautiful and whole, they feed its people and help them maintain their culture.
The rat seemed to grasp the gravity as well. It hopped onto the plastic housing of a rattrap and regarded Melovidov for a moment, as if to make clear that it should not be underestimated.
Then, it vanished into the wall.
Alaska is one of the few places on Earth where rats are still rare. Only a handful of mainland communities have established populations; Anchorage, the state’s largest city, isn’t considered one of them. Only about a dozen of the larger islands among the 2,500 within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches from the Aleutians to the Pribilofs to the shores of the Chukchi Sea, are known to have rat infestations. That may partly explain why some 40 million seabirds—80 percent of the state’s total—still flock to the refuge to breed.
Rats first showed up in Alaska around 1780, when they escaped from a Japanese ship that ran aground on a western Aleutian island that the Unangan people had named Hawadax, meaning “those two over there,” after the island’s low hills. A Russian explorer later renamed it Rat Island. As more vessels traveled the Alaskan coastline—Russian and American fur traders translocating Arctic foxes to farm, US and Japanese ships sparring during the Second World War—they inadvertently introduced stowaway rats to other islands. Scientists now call this kind of event a “rat spill.” The animals scampered down mooring lines, found their way from hideaways in cargo to terra firma, even paddled to shore from vessels and wrecks. Norway rats, perhaps the most destructive species, can easily swim 200 meters. In warmer waters, the distance stretches to two kilometers and they can survive adrift for up to three days.
The story elsewhere is similar. Pacific Islanders brought Pacific rats to new haunts by canoe as a food source thousands of years ago. Ships on missions of war, colonization, and trade later spread Norway and black rats. Today, rats inhabit more than 80 percent of the world’s islands. They are famously prolific. With the ability to produce several litters per year of babies that sexually mature quickly, a mated pair quickly multiplies to thousands. Where food is abundant, they’ll dine on the richest parts of what’s available, killing more than they can eat, devouring seeds, plants, fruits, reptiles, bugs, eggs, chicks, adult birds. On Kiska Island, in the Aleutians, researchers have stumbled on rat dens beneath the rocks packed with auklets, including one charnel house of 148 dead birds.
Seabirds, in contrast to rats, produce just a couple of babies each year; many species have just one. In thin years, these long-lived creatures may not expend scarce resources on breeding at all, a strategy that helps the species weather the vagaries of a harsh environment. Many seabirds choose remote islands to breed where isolation and rugged terrain offer protection. Like salmon, many are loyal to the speck of ground where they hatched, returning each year, sitting resolutely on eggs, even, in some cases, as introduced rodents eat them alive.
Wherever rats show up, seabirds tend not to remain. On Hawadax, no data exists to suggest the extent of damage, but bones from archaeological sites hint at the vanished: crested, whiskered, and parakeet auklets, and ancient murrelets—gray, black, and white seabirds with comically snubbed bills. On Langara Island, in the archipelago of Haida Gwaii off the British Columbia coast, 200,000 breeding pairs of ancient murrelets once nested, abundant enough to feed the Haida people. But rats arrived in 1946, and by 1993, fewer than 20,000 ancient murrelet pairs remained there.
These death spirals, repeated across the globe, have mostly been arrested by campaigns of more killing. The “turning point for rat busters the world over,” as one documentary described it, came in 1988, when scientists from New Zealand managed to clear a rugged island called Breaksea of rats. They placed lengths of plastic pipe to serve as bait stations on a rough grid over the island’s 1.7 square kilometers to hit every potential rat territory. Once the rats grew accustomed to the stations, the scientists hiked in to add bait laced with slow-acting anticoagulant poison. More than 700 rodent eradications have proceeded worldwide in Breaksea’s wake, often using similar templates and poisons, with bait spread by hand, helicopter, and other means. The largest eradication ever—of 3,800-square-kilometer South Georgia Island, off the tip of South America—was declared a success last year. Scientists are now experimenting with pharmaceutical, genetic, and other technologies to supplant poisons in future operations.
Eradications are controversial, but the results have so far been generally positive. A review paper led by ornithologist Michael Brooke found that 151 of 181 seabird populations that were intended beneficiaries of an invasive species eradication are rising. On Langara, for example, the breeding population of ancient murrelets began a marked increase within a decade of eradication. On Anacapa Island, in California’s Channel Islands, Scripps’s murrelets and Cassin’s auklets have rebounded and ashy storm petrels have reappeared. When “you start to see the immediate and fairly dramatic recovery, it’s just very encouraging,” says Annie Little, a biologist who oversees seabird projects in Channel Islands National Park. “For me, it’s a story of hope.”
It’s also a story of last resort. Eradications can run into the multiple millions of dollars and must be meticulously planned, often for years, to determine the scope of killing required to insulate an area from future invasion, contingencies to protect other animals from poison, and compliance with environmental laws. Rat Island got its true name of Hawadax reinstated and many of its birds back after the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge partnered with Island Conservation—a pioneer of invasive species eradication—and the Nature Conservancy to expunge the rats in 2008. That operation also cost US $2.5-million and involved a 4,200-kilometer round-trip ocean journey and a race against a lethal storm. Helicopters had to execute an elaborately choreographed broadcast of bait over rugged terrain, an effort that likely poisoned most of the 46 bald eagles and 320 gulls scientists found dead on the island in the aftermath.
But avoiding those steep costs to life and pocketbook may be the trickiest work of all. It’s one thing to undertake a high-stakes effort for a year or two. It’s entirely another to prevent rats from finding their way back to an island from a neighboring island, or a boat, plane, or shipwreck, year in, year out, forever. Or, even more important, to protect virgin territory from a rat spill in the first place.
For years, Paul Melovidov and his ECO coworker Aaron Lestenkof protected Saint Paul’s rat-free status with one afternoon per month on rat patrol. When they weren’t attending to other duties, like counting northern fur seals or surveying for dead birds on the windswept beaches, the two men paced the docks of Saint Paul’s small harbor with an iPad, checking stations designed to attract rodents that might debark a barge or the fishing boats that frequent the island.
Most of these stations are 115-liter yellow plastic barrels, each modified into a sort of mini McDonald’s PlayPlace, with bite. Multiple entrances from bottom to top ensure accessibility in snow. There’s a line inside to climb and an elevated plywood platform loaded with a snap trap and a fun-size candy bar, which, if chewed, can reveal a rodent even if it isn’t caught. About 130 stations currently dot Saint Paul Island. Melovidov and Lestenkof also checked them at the landfill, the airport marooned in its sea of tall grass, the seafood plant, the grocery store, the post office. The Alaska Maritime Refuge maintains another set of barrels on Saint George. Lestenkof describes the routine succinctly: it’s “pretty boring.”
This sort of unsexy, forever project of vigilance is called biosecurity. Think of it as a customs agency designed to shield vulnerable creatures from those animals, plants, bugs, and pathogens that travel with and thrive alongside people. Programs rely on prevention, early detection, and rapid response. Prevention is cheaper than eradication by a factor of 20, according to data from Mexico. It’s also vastly preferable to a rain of poison and death. And paradoxically, nothing happening can be a sign of success. Just a handful of rats turned up dead in Saint Paul’s bait stations between 1995 and 1996, the program’s first year. After that, the traps were always empty. Melovidov didn’t see his first rat until 2015, when he tried Saint Paul’s traps on Unalaska, an Aleutian island with a known infestation, just to confirm that they worked: they caught about 18.
On August 28, 2018, though, ECO got a call that would set the whole operation into overdrive: a worker at the seafood plant had seen a brown, furry creature with a naked tail. Melovidov and Lestenkof laid traps around shreds of fiberglass insulation they found piled behind a tank, as if the rat was gathering material for a nest. They mounted wildlife cameras. When Melovidov finally trained his flashlight on the rat in the flesh on September 5, he took it as a good sign. “At that moment,” he says, “I thought it was just a matter of time.”
Still, ECO director Lauren Divine, a young no-nonsense biologist with a thick blond ponytail, called the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to report the intruder. After a week without luck, ECO wanted guidance. Refuge manager Steve Delehanty decided that the situation required more help than the refuge could provide on its own.
While the rat continued to elude the team, showing up on camera occasionally, tripping two traps, and snubbing ECO’s peanut butter and fish oil bait, Delehanty assembled a group of specialists. Among them were Chris Gill, an eradication expert at the Canadian organization Coastal Conservation; Marc Pratt and Spencer Atkinson of Wildlife Services, a division of the US Department of Agriculture tasked with managing human-wildlife conflicts; and Tessa Johrendt, then the acting invasive species coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska refuges. Delehanty rounded out the mix.
Flying to Saint Paul on short notice by commercial airline can be tricky because of limited seats and bad weather. So once supplies were in order—traps, chew blocks containing additives that make rat poop fluoresce, bait, Sharpies, Post-its, rodenticide, two air rifles with thermal scopes—the refuge chartered a plane with $28,000 scraped together from the year-end budget leftovers of other refuges and Fish and Wildlife Service branches.
That’s a hefty sum for what might turn out to be one rat, but it’s preferable to allowing a population to establish. Realistically, an eradication operation on Saint Paul would cost several million dollars, says Gill. “And you have the constraints of people being in a community and trying to ensure that you can get access to every single house. It’s far easier to respond to an incursion early and quickly.”
They called the response Operation Romeo, for the first letter in rat, though the name was also apt for the rat hunters’ potentially lonely and likely male target.
The group of experts also had a name for themselves: the Strike Team.
The rat biosecurity program in the Pribilofs is one of the oldest in North America. As the profile and scale of island eradications have risen, so too has managers’ awareness of the tools available to handle invasive species, says Gregg Howald, an eradication expert with Island Conservation. Consequently, biosecurity programs have multiplied and grown in sophistication, from their roots in New Zealand to Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere.
Channel Islands National Park, for example, hosts a staffer dedicated solely to the archipelago’s biosecurity, including on islands managed by other agencies and groups. That person oversees inspections of cargo headed to the eight islands, helps visiting researchers and contractors follow protocols such as using rodent-proof containers and footwear free of mainland seeds, and develops plans for educating other visitors about keeping their gear and boats clear. A network of remote wildlife cameras scattered across the islands at some logical points of entry, as well as those meant to monitor other wildlife, can help reveal the early presence of a new or returning invader.
Reinvasions are heartbreaking, but when they occur, they often reveal ways to improve. After the Haida Nation and partners eliminated black rats from two small islands in Haida Gwaii, managers were surprised to find that Norway rats had moved in within a few years, possibly swimming from a nearby island over a distance they had believed the creatures would not cross. “I think it’s made us more vigilant. I think it’s also made us more observant, in the sense of what are the different routes, what are the different mechanisms that can cause this,” says Robyn Irvine, who manages restoration and conservation projects for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site.
Where money is scarce, these efforts rest more heavily on people power than on expensive equipment like cameras, says Mariam Latofski Robles, director of development in charge of island biosecurity at Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas in Mexico. To support its eradication efforts, the group conducts education campaigns and art programs, and works with local park rangers, federal agencies, fishermen’s co-ops, and the tourism industry to develop biosecurity protocols and generate buy-in. The goal is to set up locals to take over.
The Pribilofs program also works that way, relying not just on ECO maintaining traps, but also on invasive-species-themed lessons through the island school and events like the annual Bering Sea Days festival. Leadership on Saint Paul has been key to success, says Delehanty. “I’m so thankful that the people on the island are proud of their community and want to keep it rat-free.”
Other government agencies working in Alaska were also hypervigilant for a time. In 2011, the US Coast Guard nabbed the 43-meter Bangun Perkasa fishing illegally in international waters 4,200 kilometers southwest of Kodiak Island. On board—in addition to at least 15 kilometers of drift net, 27 tonnes of squid, 30 shark carcasses, and 22 crew members—agents found a “severe infestation” of rats. They kept the newly dubbed “pirate ratship” far offshore of Unalaska while a contracted tugboat ferried rat-killing crews back and forth, at a cost of $200,000.
The incident was a dramatic example of the state’s defenses. In 2007, the Alaska Board of Game passed a set of rules that made it illegal to harbor or transport all but pet albino rats; kept infested ships at least five kilometers from shore; and, though enforcement is education based, laid out deterrents including jail time and fines—up to $10,000 for individuals and $200,000 for organizations. That same year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game drafted a detailed plan to prevent invasive rodents from spreading in the state, a complement to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge’s longer-standing efforts. Since helping build Saint Paul’s rat program in the 1990s, the refuge had developed a coordinated rat spill response to shipwrecks, stashing rat kits with camping gear, traps, and other supplies in some coastal communities. Perhaps 90 people from different agencies and organizations were trained to administer poisons at the rat fight’s peak, says retired refuge biologist Art Sowls, an instrumental early player. If a ship in distress threatened refuge lands or certain wildlife species, officials would try to intercept any invading rodents once threats to human life and safety were under control.
But maintaining momentum and resources over time can be among the biggest challenges for programs. In Alaska, incidents were few and far between, and by the time Saint Paul’s rat made landfall, shrinking budgets, the retirement of key people, and other factors had made rat prevention harder to prioritize among a slew of competing needs. The refuge was doing its best with significantly fewer staff and no longer employed a dedicated invasive species specialist. Rodenticide certifications had lapsed; maintenance of rat response kits had grown spottier.
Meanwhile, thousands of ships pass through Alaskan waters as they travel between Asia and North America, and more may come as the Arctic bakes and sea ice retreats. Warmer winters may also make it easier for rats to take hold. When people think about the environmental impacts of more ship traffic, they think of oil spills. But “as devastating as oil spills are, their effects go away after years or decades,” says Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge supervisory wildlife biologist Heather Renner. “Rats probably never do. They’re way worse, way scarier.”
Consider the rat—the inquisitive whiskered muzzle, those deft little paws, those assessing eyes. It looks smart, and it is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so indestructible. Rats are highly suspicious of new things, or neophobic, which makes them hard to catch because they steer clear of traps. In 2004, New Zealand biologist James Russell and a team of collaborators released a radio-collared male rat named Razza on a small island to test just how hard. They spent the next four months chasing him, writes William Stolzenburg in his 2011 eradication-for-conservation opus, Rat Island. Razza snubbed every treat. The radio signal failed when Razza swam to another island. In the end, Razza succumbed to a trap baited with fresh penguin, in an area where scientists tracked him with rat-sniffing dogs.
This was the formidable foe that the Strike Team faced when they finally landed on Saint Paul on September 20, 2018, three weeks after the initial rat report. No one had seen signs of rats at the seafood plant since September 9; the animal, perhaps the size of a balled pair of socks, could be anywhere on the wild chunk of rock and grass 100 kilometers square.
The Strike Team cooked up a paste of bacon bits and grease to add to the bait arsenal. They added numerous temporary bait stations to the barrels around the plant, but removed most of the individual traps ECO had set in the room the rat frequented, in case these had spooked it. At night, Pratt and Atkinson from Wildlife Services watched the building through the thermal scopes on their rifles from a truck or quietly paced the halls, like secret agents stalking a perp. All they saw were the heat signatures of village cats and the islands’ endemic foxes. The Strike Team interviewed Trident employees. They peppered the area with 26 motion-activated cameras, 15 in the plant’s interior. A worker with a sense of humor mounted a plastic red-eyed cat smoking a cigarette above one of the devices. “Kitty is also checking for rats,” Delehanty wrote in his daily notes. But the only animal to trigger the cameras inside was yet another fox, stalking the dark hallways.
Members of the Strike Team also checked a wide radius of ground around Trident, scanning with a black light for rat feces and urine, for nesting materials, for anything. They came across signs of more foxes and cats, but rats hadn’t touched the orphaned gummy bear and corn chips they discovered in the shadows. They looked unsuccessfully for rat trails. They checked shipping containers and poked at lumber. They searched dry-docked boats and abandoned buildings. They searched a greenhouse, the grocery warehouse, a spooky, debris-filled machine shop that, according to one team member, would make a fine horror movie set. Pratt and Atkinson even scanned every nearby fox burrow for rat tails, which foxes, for all their indiscriminate appetites, will not eat.
As the crew wrapped up on September 26, they believed the rat was alone, but they still hadn’t seen any new sign of it. It wouldn’t appear again until late October, when another plant worker managed to snag it by the tail for a single maddening moment before the rat disappeared into the wall. Again.
To arrive in the Pribilofs during breeding season is to immerse in animate air. The sky around Saint Paul Island is frenetic with birds transiting between rugged cliffs and the Bering Sea, which strikes the rocks below with such force that you can feel the vibration as you walk along the precipices. Thick-billed and common murres, with their tuxedo markings and barrel chests, cackle and jostle on ledges. Black-legged and red-legged kittiwakes zip about on scythe-like wings. Creamy fulmars glare from under furrowed brows. Tufted and horned puffins poke from gaps in rock streaked white with guano and capped here and there with brilliant green plants. If an eagle appears, the whole chattering avian mass takes flight as one, furling out over the water, a cast net that catches and holds a viewer’s breath.
Life has never been easy for birds here, depending as they do on the rich but changeable Bering, and it appears to be getting harder. Dead seabirds wash up on beaches in alarming numbers with alarming regularity. Several species have declined in number at monitoring plots on Saint Paul and Saint George since the 1970s and ’80s. And since 2015, a number have also failed to breed successfully, corresponding to a period of warmer ocean temperatures. “They don’t need help dying,” says ECO’s Lauren Divine. “They don’t need to come back to the cliffs starving, in weakened body condition, to be easy prey to a rat.”
After the Strike Team departed, ECO considered ways to further shore up biosecurity, including by renewing staff rodenticide certifications. Inspired by the Saint Paul rat’s unwelcome incursion, the Fish and Wildlife Service, too, looked for ways to strengthen its rat defenses, eventually hiring an intern to help draft a new biosecurity plan. But the frustrating situation only grew more so as the months wore on. Having dead rats shipped in frozen from another island and putting them near armed traps—rodents are naturally curious about each other—didn’t work. Feeding the rat grain on unarmed traps to lull it into a false sense of security didn’t work. In January, Divine suggested an alternative plan: she would work at the plant each night with a BB gun. Eventually, she reasoned, she’d have a clean shot. “I wanted to be the rat princess,” she says. “I wanted to be the one to produce that carcass.” But Trident decided against the gun, and ECO staff—already stretched thin—turned to the Alaska Maritime Refuge bird research crew stationed on the island to help with the vigil through the summer, waiting for the animal to drop its guard.
By early June, that moment still hadn’t come. In fact, the rat had somehow managed to break out of a live trap. Bird crew lead Sarah Tanedo began working under Trident supervision to unleash the last resort, a careful application of poisoned bait that she had specially trained for before beginning her field season that May.
Three weeks later, on June 30, six birding enthusiasts fresh from a visit to the cliffs made their way toward lunch at the Trident Seafood cafeteria with Sulli Gibson, head guide for St. Paul Island Tour. Just outside the building, below a stairwell, one of them pointed out a curled, gray-furred body. “I don’t think they realized quite how unusual it was when they first saw it,” Gibson says.
Trident manager Bill Briggs and Divine materialized almost as soon as Gibson texted them. Divine may not have been the one to kill the rat in the end, but when she posed for a photograph with the carcass that day, a huge grin spread across her face—a rat princess with her quarry in hand at last. ECO will stay vigilant, just in case there are more. In the meantime, they’ll celebrate. “Yay!” Divine wrote in an email. “The wicked rat is dead!”
An earlier version of this story stated that Saint George ECO maintains biosecurity barrels on that island. In fact, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge leads maintenance on those barrels. The story has also been updated to reflect the Alaska Maritime Refuge’s assistance with Saint Paul barrel checks over the summer. Hakai sincerely regrets the errors.