Thursday, July 31, 2014

The protection of Protection Island

Harbor Seals, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Protection Island is a small island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca whose name now has a double meaning.

Harbor Seals and Mount Baker, Protection Island, Washington

Located at the mouth of Discovery Bay, the name originally referred to the island’s usefulness to humans. The island nearly stretches across the entrance to the bay, shielding it from some of the strait’s choppy waters.

The island still offers that protection, but now it protects a whole host of wildlife as well.

Hundreds of homes, perhaps even a thousand, were once planned on the island, until Zella Schultz, a wildlife biologist and artist, discovered just how important it was to wildlife. Illness claimed Shultz’s life before she was able to stop the bulldozers from destroying auklet burrows and breeding grounds for gulls, but her friend Eleanor Stopps continued conservation efforts, including buying up available lots on the island.

Bald Eagles on National Wildlife Refuge Sign, Protection Island, Washington

Protection Island became a national wildlife refuge in October, 1982. Everyone you talk to points out that it is the only wildlife refuge created when Ronald Reagan was president. While some may mean that as an indictment of Reagan’s environmental priorities, they all agree that it shows just how special the island truly is.

Technically, the island is not in Puget Sound, but unless you’re talking about lakes, the boundaries of a body of water can be hard to define. Given that the island is just a few miles from the mouth of the sound and that it shares more traits than differences with the sound’s islands, for wildlife statistics, it’s counted as a Puget Sound island.

Under that math, nearly three out of four seabirds that nest in the Puget Sound area now do so on Protection Island. It’s home to largest nesting colony of rhinoceros auklets in the world, and the largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls in Washington state. It is one of only two tufted puffin colonies left in the Puget Sound area. About a thousand harbor seals also raise their young on the island.

When the refuge was established, nine homeowners were grandfathered access to the island; only one still uses it now. Boats travel past, especially during the summer months, but they’re not allowed closer than 200 yards.

Even from that distance, you can hear the commotion on the island. Harbor seals bark as they’re tending to pups that are only a few weeks old. Gulls scream as bald eagles mount another attempt to feed on their young. Black oystercatchers “wheep” as they fly in groups over the shore.

Tufted Puffin, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

The only silence comes from the tufted puffins who swim just offshore to feed on herring.

Watching young harbor seals squirm their way through a dense pack of adult seals laying on the beach flipper to flipper, it’s amazing to see how many animals have moved here since the humans moved out. But it’s also clear that at some point, the animals will have to move yet again.

West Shore, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

As we travel around the west side of the island on our way back to Port Townsend, the first thing you notice is that a huge piece of Protection Island is missing. While the island’s bluffs are as much as 250 feet high, they’re made of sediment dropped by retreating glaciers — not solid rock. Giant pieces break off and tumble into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the rate they’ve been going, some believe the island may vanish in as little as 800 years.

Until then, Protection Island is an incredible home for thousands of animals — so many that you can still appreciate the magnitude from a boat 200 yards away.

(This fall, Kevin Ebi will be publishing his first comprehensive portfolio of his nature photography in a book called Living Wilderness. Join the Living Wilderness email list or become a Living Wilderness Facebook fan to learn how to order your copy. Your personal information will not be shared with anyone.)

Pigeon Guillemot Running on Water, Discovery Bay, Washington

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