Connect Magazine (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)

The Fight Against Extinction (COVER STORY)

January 2016

It was a few years ago when Scott Newland felt his heart drop to his feet. As curator of birds at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., he oversees the care of 950 birds at the Zoo and serves as program leaders for the Guam Rail Species Survival Plan® (SSP). In addition to focusing on maintain a genetically healthy and sustainable population of Guam rails in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities, this program also includes reintroduction efforts for this endangered 7-ounce, flightless, once-indigenous bird. 

Listed as extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the bird has yet to be reintroduced to its native land, so a satellite home for the species has been created on the neighboring Pacific island of Rota—the place where Newland felt his faith in reintroduction falter, if just for a minute. 

“On my first trip to Rota, I remember stepping off the plane and seeing a rail dead on the ground at the airport,” he said. “Someone had run over it with their car.” 

The process of reintroducing a species into the wild can be tricky at best. There are hundreds of factors that go into the decision—environmental, political and sociological. When it works, the results are exhilarating for the public and environmentalists. 

That is what happened in the 1980s when biologists were alerted to the plight of the California condor, pushed to near extinction by a pesticide called DDT. By 1982, there were only 23 condors left; five years later, a robust breeding and reintroduction program was initiated to save the species. The program worked, condors were released, DDT was outlawed and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), as of 2008 there were more condors flying in the wild than in managed care. 

This story popularized the concept of reintroduction, but it did not publicize the myriad of challenges faced by Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities and other involved parties facilitating such programs. 

Reviving the Guam Rail
One effort fraught with challenges is the reintroduction of the Guam rail, a species that was pushed to the brink of extinction after World War II when the U.S. developed a military base on the island and, as part of its supply efforts, sourced goods from neighboring Australia and New Guinea. In those shipments came several brown tree snakes, an animal foreign to Guam. 

The once lush and sparsely populated island had never before seen a snake; Guam harbored more than a dozen indigenous bird species without predators. The rail laid bright white eggs in the dirt without fear and didn’t need to fly to sustain life, making the brown tree snake all the more lethal. 

“These birds were basically producing a buffet for the snake,” said Newland. 

By the late 1970s, biologists noticed a rapid decline in the rail population. In the 1980s, the remaining Guam rails were rounded up—just 21 of them—and a breeding program was initiated, quickly proving successful. By the late 1980s, zoos were running out of room to hold rails. This is when the idea to open a site on Rota came about with the goal of creating a self-sustaining population and eventually initiating reintroduction to Guam. 

Fast forward nearly 30 years and the AZA, along with UFSWS and the Guam Department of Agriculture, are still working to come up with a way to replant the rail back in its home range. The challenges are seemingly endless, starting with the still-omnipresent brown tree snake. 

“The Department of Agriculture on Guam has spent millions trying to eradicate it and they have traps all over the place, but they’ve estimated that there are 1,000 brown tree snakes per square mile, probably around 300,000 on the island,” said Newland.

In addition, dogs, cats and rats (all new to the island since the U.S. military presence) have proven to be a problem. Even less obvious challenges include the necessity for increasing education on the ground in Rota and Guam. Newland visits both islands regularly to meet with student groups and talk about the importance of the rail. 

“Rails are great education animals because they can go into the classroom with you,” he said. “We bring them and they climb on the desks and mess with the kids; it helps them make a connection to the animal.” 

Transportation can also be difficult. Regulations enforced after 11 September 2001 have made it challenging to transport live animals overseas and across borders. As of now, the SSP transports rails to Rota through Hawaii via a single air carrier. “We live and die by United Airlines,” he said.

Also impactful to the future viability of rails on Guam is the cooperation with the U.S. government, which has built out much of the island. Today, the military is cooperative with efforts to eradicate snakes and put rails back on Guam, but as Newland knows, that agreement could change at any time. “We get what land they grant us, but any day they could come in and say we are done and need to give up a piece of land meant for the rail,” Newland said. 

When asked if he sees the rail back on Guam in the near future, Newland hesitates. 

“I turn 40 this year, and I don’t know if I will see them released on Guam in my lifetime,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that our kids won’t figure it out.” 

Bringing Butterflies Back to Ohio
More than 7,500 miles east of Guam in Toledo, Ohio, Mitchell Magdich has been working for more than 20 years to help reintroduce the Karner blue butterfly back into the wild in Northwest Ohio. The animals once common in the upper United States started disappearing in certain states in the late 1980s, and by the early 1990s, Magdich, curator of education at the Toledo Zoo, began a program through which a number of Karner blues would be taken from a preserve in Michigan and brought to the Zoo to be bred and reintroduced. 

“We selected the Allegan State Game Area in Michigan as our source because the Karner blues were there,” he said, adding that Ohio’s Kitty Todd Nature Preserve was chosen as the place to reintroduce the species. 

In 1998, Magdich and his team brought 26 female Karner blues from Michigan down to a greenhouse in Toledo. Within the first year, more than 500 butterflies that were released flourished in their reintroduction site. Today, the species is living and breeding in two locations in Northwest Ohio. The problem? In 2012, the federal government pulled the plug on collecting the butterfly in Michigan because the population had started to crash. 

“We went from tens of thousands of Karner blues to hundreds, even tens, so they didn’t want us collecting any more,” he said, adding that the decline can be attributed to the effects of climate change. “The good news is that they continue to persist in Ohio without any releases since 2012. I would call it successful today, but it would take just one [natural] event to wipe out everything.” 

The Importance of Habitat
Creating a habitat primed for a specific species is an integral piece of the reintroduction puzzle. The Guam rail cannot go home because of the presence of the brown tree snake. The California condor, on the other hand, has been able to reenter the wild because of regulations prohibiting the use of DDT, though the species still struggles with lead, which remains prevalent in the environment. The lake sturgeon is another example of a successful reintroduction, thanks in part to a healthy habitat. The once prevalent fish had gone nearly extinct in Tennessee and Alabama by the 1960s. 

“Overfishing, poor water quality and large scale habitat modification by way of dam building pushed lake sturgeon to the brink of extinction,” said Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute in Chattanooga, Tenn. 

As a result of legislation such as the Clean Water Act (1972) and changes to the way some Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dams were operated—such as increasing minimum water flows to oxygenate the water—the rivers looked primed for sturgeon habitation again. In the late 1990s, sturgeon eggs from Wisconsin were brought to Tennessee and raised in captivity. Two years later, they were released and monitored. 

“Now, 15 years on, more than 185,000 have been released into the Tennessee River,” said George, noting that there have been challenges, mostly related to finding consistent funding and increasing monitoring efforts. However, the sturgeon are doing well largely because of the healthy habitat in which they can now live and regulations in place making it illegal to keep sturgeon in in most of the southeastern United States. 

Facing Challenges with Optimism
The struggle to mitigate threats to a species’ habitat is perhaps the most outwardly challenging aspect of reintroduction, as evident with the Guam rail. But as Magdich attests, most AZA reintroduction programs face three common trials.

First, funding. Reintroduction projects are incredibly costly in time and resources. During down years, a project may lose its funding. “It is important that you try to have a variety of funding sources and not rely on a single one,” Magdich suggested. 

Second, personnel. These programs require a high level of expertise. “Let’s say one person doesn’t bother to check the temperature in a greenhouse. It gets too high and you find out that you wiped out all of your animals for the year. That can happen,” he noted.

Third, changing political climates. New administrations—state or federal—can bring with them changing priorities regarding natural resources. “Topics surrounding endangered species are highly political,” he said. “With reintroduction programs, you are always living on a knife’s edge.” 


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Katie Morell specializes in feature writing, breaking news and corporate communications.