From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1997:

by Carroll Cox, Wildlife consultant, Friends of Animals

For many years the U.S. Navy
has leased the western Pacific island of
Farallon de Medinilla, Commonwealth
of Northern Marian Islands, uninhabited
by humans, for use in bombing practice.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service internal
reports indicate that the Navy bombs the
island at least four times a year, and considers
it an especially important target
site because so many other targets have
been placed off limits––chiefly to protect
endangered wildlife. This came to light
when the Navy requested a USFWS permit
to “take” migratory birds incidental
to their bombing activity. At first the
USFWS denied the permit, but then
reversed course and issued it.

Farallon de Medinilla is steep
and inaccessible by sea, and thus harbors
one of the few seabird colonies left in the
Marianas. Seabird colonies on oceanic
islands are most inappropriate places to
use as bombing ranges because the concentrations
of wildlife are so great there.
Animals who may be supported by hundreds
of thousands of square miles of
ocean must congregate in high density on
available predator-free land in order to
breed. Therefore the actual ecosystem
area affected by the bombs is far greater
than the few acres of the colony itself.
Seabird diversity in the western
Pacific is already jeopardized by hunting,
fishing, pollution, and habitat loss to
logging and development, so remaining
colonies should be completely protected.
The recent discovery of an
endangered ovenbird species on Farallon
de Medinilla, Micronesian megapodes,
makes even more compelling the case for
an immediate end to the bombardment.
The Navy invited various government
experts to do a terrestrial and
marine survey of Farallon de Medinilla
on November 3, 1996, including
Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas
fisheries biologist Curt Kessler, herpetologist/archaelogist
Scott Vogt, and
botanist Art Whistler, along with
USFWS biologist Michael Lusk,
National Marine Fisheries Service biologist
John Naughton, and Brigham Young
University ornithologist Phil Bruner.
Rough seas prevented them
from doing the marine survey, but in five
hours ashore they recorded the presence
of 16 bird species, including endangered
Micronesian megapodes, as well as
masked, red-footed, and brown boobies,
the latter in the greatest numbers known
in the Marianas, black and common noddies,
white and sooty terns, red-tail tropic
birds, bristle-thighed curlews, ruddy
turnstones, whimbrels, lesser golden
plovers, white-throated ground doves,
the only known great frigatebird breeding
colony in the Marianas, and non-native
cattle egrets and Eurasian tree sparrows.
The reporting parties expressed
concern that the Navy had possibly killed
some megapodes, and could kill more,
as well as other migratory birds, if the
bombing goes on.
Wrote Lusk and Kessler in a
joint report, “There is no question that
bombing the island will result in the
death of seabirds, migratory shorebirds,
and possibly the endangered Micronesian
megapode. On several occasions we
observed boobies nesting very close to
unexploded ordinance. While the unexploded
ordinance may not provide an
immediate threat to the birds, it does
indicate that bombs do fall in active nesting
areas. Although there may be peaks
in the seabird breeding season, our
observations indicate that breeding probably
occurs year-round. Two megapode
sightings, the northernmost and southernmost,
were near the edges of the
island where ordinance impacts appear to
be the greatest.
“Another major concern,”
Lusk and Kessler continued, “is the
transport of junk cars from Guam to
Farallon de Medinilla as targets.
Currently there are about 12 of these
vehicles on the island. Even though these
cars may be searched for brown tree
snakes before transport, there is still a
good chance that snakes may stow away
in the cars and later invade the island,”
devastating bird life much as they have
on Guam, where biologist James D.
Reichel of the Saipan Division of Fish
and Wildlife has called them “the most
serious threat to all species of birds,
small mammals, and lizards in
Micronesia.” Vogt brought snake traps to
Farallon de Medinilla, but was on the
island too briefly to deploy them.
“It is very difficult to gauge the
impact that naval activity has had on the
seabird and megapode population,” Lusk
and Kessler added. “As our helicopter
approached and landed, several hundred
seabirds were airborne, but some of the
masked boobies began to resettle on nests
within 15 minutes. It was not possible to
tell how long other species such as redfooted
boobies were off their nests.”
According to Lusk and Kessler,
“An Environmental Impact Statement
prepared by the Navy in 1975 states that
boobies were evenly distributed over the
island, and estimates a population of
50,000 boobies and 1,000 white terns. If
this estimate is accurate, then bombing
on the island since 1975 has had a
tremendous effect.” Other counts in
recent years have found fewer birds, but
Lusk and Kessler suggest, “It is possible
that bombing has changed the predominant
vegetation of the island to such a
degree that nesting habitat was significantly
Lusk and Kessler suggested
that if the Navy bombing can’t be
stopped, it should at least be restricted to
off-peak times of year for seabird breeding,
that the target area should be limited
to the interior portion of Farallon de
Medinilla, where nests are few, that the
bird populations should be monitored on
an ongoing basis, and that the bombing
should be permitted conditional upon
Navy help in protecting seabirds at other
locations, for instance by “eradicating
feral ungulates and non-native predators
from another island such as Sarigan.”
NMFS biologist Naughton told
me, when I called seeking further information
about the trip, that he had
observed one sea turtle at Farallon de
Medinilla, and had concerns for a remnant
population of humpback whales who
occur in the area on a seasonal basis. He
told me that spinner dolphins as well as
green and hawksbilled sea turtles are
common around the island. The turtles
nest on small pocket beaches. Naughton
stated that the National Marine Fisheries
Service issued a permit to “take” marine
mammals and sea turtles because
USFWS had issued a “take” permit for
the megapodes and turtles, and that
NMFS should go along with the USFWS
decision. Naughton said that NMFS did
require the Navy to fly over the island to
look for turtles and marine mammals
before bombing. If they are there, the
Navy is to wait for the animals to leave.
U.S. Navy Pacific Division
biologist Tim Sutterfield told me that the
USFWS issued a “take” permit for 10
megapodes, on condition that the Navy
fund a goat-and-weed eradication program
on other islands in the area. He
stated that the investigators documented
only four megapodes on Farallon de
Medinilla––which allows the Navy to kill
every known representative of this endangered
species 2.5 times.
Sutterfield explained that the
Navy initially requested a permit to incidentally
kill migratory birds, but later
learned that NMFS and USFWS lawyers
determined that the Migratory Bird
Treaty incidental “take” permit requirement
does not apply to federal agencies
while performing their duties. He concluded
by stating that the Navy is preparing
to bomb the island in the very near
future, but said he could not disclose the
date because the location of the ships that
are to take part in the bombing exercise is
classified information.
I asked Sutterfield for a copy of
the official Biological Opinion, and was
told to contact the USFWS, as it is a
public record and could be gotten faster
from them. I called Margo Stahl,
USFWS interagency project leader, and
requested a copy of the Biological
Opinion as well as all other pertinant documents.
She told me that she could not
provide the information because it was
against policy, and the study was so
recent that “the ink is still drying.” She
also said that the agency that USFWS
wrote the opinion for is responsible for
giving it to the public, but added that she
would check the policy to make sure.
Among points of great concern:
• NMFS issued permits with
little regard for the humpback whales and
spinner dolphins, merely on the basis of
conformity to the practice of USFWS.
• The possible introduction of
brown tree snakes, while officially
noted, has apparently not been officially
addressed in the issuance of the permits.
• The USFWS and NMFS permits
were both issued on the basis of just
five hours of study on the island.
• The possible prior “take” of
megapodes and/or sea turtles apparently
hasn’t even been noted or discussed.
In my view, NMFS and the
USFWS committed not only an immoral
act but a criminal act when they issued
the “take” permit. Should the Navy use it
and proceed with the bombing of endangered
species on Farallon de Medinilla,
they will be guilty as well.

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