Alaska's Rat Island rat-free after 229 years

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Fri Jun 12, 2009 6:15pm EDT

A view of Rat Island in the western Aleutians is seen in this March 28, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge/Handout.

A view of Rat Island in the western Aleutians is seen in this March 28, 2006 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge/Handout.

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska's Rat Island is finally rat-free, 229 years after a Japanese shipwreck spilled rampaging rodents onto the remote Aleutian island, decimating the local bird population.

After dropping poison onto the island from helicopter-hoisted buckets for a week and a half last autumn, there are no signs of living rats and some birds have returned, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rats have ruled the island since 1780, when they jumped off a sinking Japanese ship and terrorized all but the largest birds on the island. The incident introduced the non-native Norway rat -- also known as the brown rat -- to Alaska.

The $2.5 million Rat Island eradication project, a joint effort between the U.S. federal government, the Nature Conservancy and Island Conservation, is one of the world's most ambitious attempts to remove destructive alien species from an island.

Now there are signs that several species of birds, including Aleutian cackling geese, ptarmigan, peregrine falcons and black oystercatchers, are starting to nest again on the 10-square-mile (26-sq-km) island.

It is too soon to say that Rat Island is definitively rat-free, however. That can only be established after at least two years of monitoring, said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.

"We don't know that there's not a couple of happy rats hiding away that are going to spring out and repopulate the island," he said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; writing by Bill Rigby; editing by Eric Beech)

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