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Around The Fleet

Protecting the Endangered

PMRF continues to fight for the species on Kauai

Located on the lush and quiet island of Kauai is the world's largest instrumented multi-environmental range, Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands (PMRF). PMRF simultaneously supports surface, subsurface, air and space training and testing operations.

But PMRF also has undertaken an additional responsibility: being a good steward of the environment.

Kauai, the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, is known for its tropical wilderness and wildlife, but unlike the hustle and bustle of city life that can be found on its close neighbor, Oahu, life on Kauai is slower, more rural, more laidback. It's a feature that many of its inhabitants value and might argue makes Kauai so unique. Despite this Kauai is still continually changing. Human development is increasing on the quiet island, and unfortunately, has been slowly impacting the natural wildlife on this island. For this reason, those who call Kauai home, including those who live and work at PMRF, want to protect the natural environment. PMRF has been recognized by state legislatures, the local community and the Navy for its environmental conservation efforts.

This year, the military installation has been kicking it up a notch, especially when it comes to the Newell's Shearwaters, an endangered seabird.

"Kauai is changing all the time," said Tom Savre, PMRF environmental specialist with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii. "There are more people and more development, and over time it has brought some challenges in trying to protect the native wildlife."

On Kauai alone, one can find three different species of shearwaters, but the Newell's Shearwater's population specifically has fared the worst in recent years. Nesting in the most remote mountains and ridges of Kauai, Newell's Shearwaters are pelagic sea birds, meaning they spend most of their lives at sea, only flying over land in total darkness. Unfortunately, there is not enough known about these mysterious birds to understand for sure why this is, but according to Savre, it could be to avoid predators or it could be to maximize their time at sea, but what is known is the adults come in after dark and they leave in the morning before light, and similarly the young fledglings will fly out to sea for the first time ever in total darkness. Armed with only their inborn navigational skills, the young shearwaters use the stars and moon to find their way to the sea.

"Unfortunately, human development, with all of our artificial lighting, has caused these young fledgling birds to be confused when they are trying to fly to the ocean for the first time ever," said Savre. "All they have is a mental map of the stars and these lights confuse things, and that's the origin for the shearwater fallout problem in Kauai."
Photo collage of individuals working and observing radars, which track shear water birds in Kauai.

"Fallout," Savre describes, happens when the birds get confused from non-natural light, and either fly into standing obstacles, like power lines, or in their confusion, fly into the ground.

The Shearwater fallout phenomenon has been a concern in Kauai for years, which has motivated PMRF to jumpstart several different programs to mitigate negative impacts on the Newell's Shearwater population.

"So here at PMRF we have implemented numerous conservation measures to reduce the likelihood of impacting shearwaters flying over or near our base," said John Nelson, installation environmental program director at PMRF.

Our primary measure that we implemented this year is our 'Dark Skies Program,' where essentially, we have reduced the amount of light that might influence the Newell's Shearwaters and cause fall out."
- John Nelson

Through the Dark Skies program, all non-mission-critical lights are turned off, or shielded, during the fallout season.

"Luckily we have been able to determine that there is a specific two to three week period that is the most critical when it comes to Shearwaters, so we turn out all unnecessary lights," said Nelson. "Obviously the mission comes first and certain things need to be lighted, but then we can use specialized or shielded lighting to minimize the potential impact to the Shearwaters."

PMRF implemented another new strategy this year to complement the Dark Skies program - radar ornithology. PMRF uses the radar at night to determine the flight passage of Newell's Shearwaters overhead through radar. By using these specialized radars, researchers determine not only the number of birds flying overhead, but also the direction they are going.

"There is a lot of interesting data that can be captured from this kind of study," said Nelson. "With the radar we can see, not only flight activity, but also flight behavior overhead, and also along our coastline so we can better understand the ecology of the birds. That information will help shape our management plans."
collage Kauai and members of Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands working with shearwater radars.

Currently, PMRF is working with many different environmental agencies to lend a helping hand, including a local organization called "Save Our Shearwaters," a nonprofit that works primarily with Newell's Shearwaters, especially during the fledgling season. (SOS) installed drop-off boxes around the island. Due to SOS' outreach program, people on Kauai know to wrap a downed bird in a towel and gently place the bird in the box. (SOS) collects and rehabilitates the birds that are injured.

"One of the things I thought was very impressive happened two years ago when I first got here. A bird went down in the community and they brought it to base because they knew that we knew what to do with it," said Capt. Bruce Hay, Commanding Officer of PMRF. "I would say that's a pretty amazing example of how we are regarded in the community and our desire to protect the things that are around us."

Going forward, Hay explained that PMRF plans to continue to implement conservation efforts in line with its tradition of being a good steward of the environment and the wildlife that resides in the area.

I joined the culture of concern for the environment when I came here and one of the many reasons we are continuing is that it's the right thing to do.
- Capt. Bruce Hay

"We all share this one planet, right? I don't know of any other spare planet that we can just jump on if we don't get it right here."

PMRF's mission is to provide integrated range service in a modern multi-threat, multi-dimensional environment that ensures the safe conduct and evaluation of training and missions.
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