June 16, 2004 – The Rat Rangers are back. This week they are attacking the varmints on 25-acre Congo Cay, just northwest of St. John. In recent months the rangers — actually biologists and pest-control specialists of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services — have conducted mopping-up operations to eliminate rats on other small government-owned islands.
The Planning and Natural Resources Department's Fish and Wildlife Division, which has contracted the services of the rangers, manages the islands.
Rat eradication has brought noticeable benefits to native flora and fauna in the Virgin Islands. Rafe Boulon, V.I. National Park chief of resource management, said on Wednesday that the National Park Service effort four years ago to clear rats off the 200-acre Buck Island south of St. Croix was successful. "We now see flowers and fruit blooming there that we had not seen before," he said. "It is a very interesting case."
(For background on that eradication program, see the St. Croix Source story "Rat Rangers Out to Rid Buck Island of Rodents".)
Boulon also recounted an effort he was personally involved with in 1982. He said a rat population was destroying the eggs of the endangered Roseate terns on Kalcun Cay, just west of St. Thomas. The first year after the rat population was eradicated, 200 nests of the endangered terns produced hatchlings.
The first island on the list in the recent campaign was 32-acre Saba Island, due west of the southern tip of Water Island. Judy Pierce, DPNR chief of wildlife, said Saba became infested with rats after a yacht wrecked near it several years ago. She is not sure how rats, which are not native to the area, infested the other islands. However, she added, "Rats follow people."
The rat eradication program is entirely federally funded. The targeted islands have been designated wildlife sanctuaries, and the rats harm wildlife. According to a DPNR release, the islands "are important breeding and roosting areas for migratory and resident seabirds, game birds (doves) and waterfowl. The elimination of rats will enhance the habitat of the island and reduce predation on the native wildlife."
Pierce said the rats also destroy vegetation and alter the natural environment of the islands.
Because rats can quickly repopulate a small area, the Rat Rangers' goal is eliminate every rat on each of the targeted islands. The rangers map each island, breaking the area into grids. Poison is placed every 40 meters.
Pierce said there were only a few rats on Saba and they might now all be gone. The rangers are finding many more on Congo Cay, but she could not give a number. The rangers first set traps, then count how many rats are caught and then determine an estimate of how many are on an island. Then poison scented like peanut butter is put out.
Pierce said the poison usually does the job, but occasionally some rats learn to avoid the peanut-butter scent. Then fish-scented poison is used. She added that the poison used does not attract other animals. It is low in toxicity, and rats have to partake more than once before dying.
No publicity was given to the rat-eradication programs earlier this year. Pierce said she felt it was necessary to get the word out to the public about Congo Cay because it is a popular destination for snorkelers and other day-trippers. "They need to know it is OK when they see our guys crawling all over the island," she said.
Before baiting can begin on an island, trails need to be cut to facilitate placement of the rat bait. Pierce said the Congo terrain was some of the "most challenging" the rangers have run into.
Boulon noted that the National Park Service is involved in an ongoing project to reduce the number of rats on St. John's parkland. But he added, "St. John is just too big of area; we could never get them all."
The park service also is in the process of trying to reduce the numbers of cats, mongooses and hogs on parkland. The cats captured in the V.I. National Park are turned over to the Animal Care Center of St. John. The hogs are slaughtered and given to residents who have put their names on a list to receive the meat.
The park service is getting in gear to take on the goat population next. Besides the damage that goats do to vegetation, Boulon said, "it is against V.I. law to let goats free range." It's estimated that a couple hundred of them are on parkland today. Boulon said the local NPS office has submitted an eradication plan to the regional office and is waiting for approval.
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