Let's Dive Culebra

CULEBRA PROTECTS SEA TURTLES

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with Culebra Northshore, S.E. (Special Entity) and William V. Mailloux, Managing Partner, has established the first ever Habitat Conservation Plan for the Caribbean. Culebra Northshore, comprising 26 hectares of land, is a proposed residential development on the island of Culebra, Puerto Rico.

"No single government agency working alone can ensure the survival of the wildlife resources we all share," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It takes the cooperation of private landowners and a wide variety of other interests to conserve our nation's animal and plant species for the future."




A female Leatherback Turtle heads back to sea after
nesting on Culebra.

"Yet when people examine the effects of their activities on the environment, they sometimes face what they see as a choice between conservation and the legitimate use of their land," continued Hamilton.

Congress addressed that issue in 1982 when it amended the Endangered Species Act to authorize Habitat Conservation Plans. When carefully implemented, these plans allow resource managers and property owners to carry out their lawful activities while becoming partners in maintaining wildlife habitat.

A 12-year incidental take permit for the Culebra Northshore Habitat Conservation Plan was issued. The proposed development calls for the sale of 45 residential lots over an 8-year period. Three of the lots border Tortola Beach, which is approximately 90 meters long and 15 meters wide. The permit authorizes the take of two leatherback or hawksbill sea turtle nests on Tortola Beach during the 12- year life of the permit. The Service has been monitoring sea turtle nesting activities on Culebra since 1984. Three hawksbill nesting activities have been reported on Tortola Beach, one in 1985 and two in 1995. Leatherback nesting has also been reported on Tortola Beach during 8 of the previous 14 years. During the 8 years when nesting occurred, an average of 2.5 nests per year were documented.

The Service works with private landowners and other non-federal entities to develop Habitat Conservation Plans that authorize incidental take of listed species. This historic agreement highlights the cooperative efforts between the Service and private sector to conserve and protect endangered species while not sacrificing landowners' rights to develop their property.




A Green Turtle
in Culebra waters.

The Service's Boquerón Field Office worked closely with the landowner in the design of minimization and mitigation measures.

"Development and environmental protection are often considered to be mutually exclusive," said James Oland, the Service's Boquerón Field Office supervisor. "This project, however, demonstrates that the two can co-exist when efforts are made to address potential conflicts before they become a problem."

The Culebra Northshore, S.E. proposed 17 conservation measures to minimize and mitigate impacts from the proposed project to sea turtles and their nesting habitat. These measures include:

  • A conservation easemGet Your Dive Gear Here Onlineent on 2.2 hectares to protect natural forest and provide a buffer against upland erosion onto the beach.
  • Prohibitions on construction activities (e.g., beach armoring, beach nourishment), mechanical beach clearing, and vehicle traffic or animals on the beach, as well as removal or trimming of beach vegetation.
  • Directing pedestrian traffic to the beach on to only one boardwalk across the shoreline and sand dune area.
  • Erection of a low fence at the end of the maritime zone (where sand turns into hard soil) to control pedestrian and animal access.
  • A prohibition on the installation of artificial lighting on the beach and a requirement to close the beach to residents from sunset to sunrise.
  • The removal of recreation equipment from the beach by sunset and a prohibition on boating activities, camping, and fires on the beach.
  • Routing vehicular traffic one way to minimize headlight glare.
  • Providing educational materials about sea turtles to all owners, and construction of an informational display board at the entrance of the boardwalk.
  • Reporting nesting activities and marking nesting areas for avoidance until DNER personnel exercise supervision over the nests.
  • Promoting volunteer programs for sea turtle conservation projects.



For the first time in history, ten captive-bred endangered Puerto Rican parrots were released to join the last 40 parrots existing in the wild.




The mountains of the
Caribbean National Forest
are home to the rare parrot
called Iguaca by the
Taino Indians.

The release into the Caribbean National Forest of Puerto Rico is the result of a 32-year combined effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, to help bring this species back from the brink of extinction.

"This is a great step forward for recovery," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "While much work remains, this proves that if people work together we can help save endangered species, and in particular, the magnificent Puerto Rican parrot. The Service is committed to continuing cooperative management of the Puerto Rican Parrot recovery program, and has proposed to establish a National Wildlife Refuge in the karst zone of north-central Puerto Rico,which could serve as a site for establishment of a second wild population of parrots."

The Puerto Rican government is committed to increasing its efforts to release additional individuals of this species. During the next fiscal year, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources will begin a land acquisition program in the karst zone, specifically the area adjacent to the Rio Abajo Forest, which in the future will become the second release site of Amazona vittata - the Puerto Rican Parrot.




Amazona vittata blends into
the Puerto Rican jungle.

When the Taino Indians of Puerto Rico called the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata) Iguaca, a name that resembles the sounds of their take-off squawks, the bird was abundant and wide-spread throughout Puerto Rico and Culebra. They were so common the Indians used them as pets and food. Now it is considered to be one of the most endangered birds in the world.

Largely emerald green with a red forehead, white rim around the eyes and blue feathers along the edges of the wings, the parrot is less than a foot tall, and is one of the smallest members of its genus. They mate for life, reproducing once a year, between January and July, and are cavity nesters, predominantly using Palo Colorado (Cyrilla racemiflora) trees. The availability of suitable nesting cavities may be one of the main factors currently limiting the species's recovery.

By the 1930s, the Puerto Rican Parrot population was estimated at 2,000 individuals. Between 1953 and 1956, when Don Antonio Rodríguez Vidal conducted the first scientific study of this endemic bird, the population had dropped to 200 birds. Habitat loss from deforestation, as well as hurricanes, hunting, nest robbing, and natural enemies, such as the red-tailed hawk and pearly-eyed thrasher, caused the drastic decline of the species.

In 1967, it was listed as an endangered species when only 24 individuals remained in the wild. The population of parrots reached an all-time alarming low in 1975 when only 13 birds were left in the Luquillo Mountains of Puerto Rico.

Without the intensive work carried out for the past 32 years by the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program the parrot would, in all probability, be extinct today. There are 103 captive birds in two aviaries that provide a sustainable source of parrots for release into the wild to bolster the current wild population, as well as for the eventual reestablishment of a second population elsewhere in Puerto Rico. In addition to having lead responsibility for managing the species in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages one aviary in El Yunque. Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources manages the other, the José L. Vivaldi aviary, at the Río Abajo Commonwealth Forest. Impacts of recent hurricanes such as Hugo (1989) and Georges (1998) clearly indicate the importance of augmenting the wild Puerto Rican parrot population as soon as possible.

The Fish and Wildlife Service led a pilot release study using captive-reared Hispaniolan Parrots (Amazona ventralis), a species closely related to the Puerto Rican Parrot, during 1996-98 in Parque del Este, Dominican Republic. The pilot release study demonstrated that captive-reared parrots could be successfully introduced into occupied habitat. The birds used in the pilot study were reared in the same aviaries and under similar conditions as the Puerto Rican Parrot. After the pilot study, the knowledge, expertise, and a suitable number of captive-reared Puerto Rican parrots existed for the first time in the history of the Recovery Program.

Twenty-two parrots were selected from the two aviaries as optimal birds for potential release into the wild. Birds were selected based on age (1-4 years old) and on genetic and biological characteristics and behavior and physical condition. Of the twenty-two, only ten were found to be suitable for release this year. For both biological and climate-related reasons, releases must take place during late June and early August. Timing the release in this way enhances the chances that both breeding and non-breeding birds will freely flock together following the nesting season. This flocking is a common pattern for this very social bird and one that provides protection from predators.

Tropical Gear From Around The EquatorToday, nine of those ten parrots are still alive, healthy, and adapting to their new environment. One bird was lost, and although its cause of death remains unknown, the other birds are in good shape, foraging on wild fruits and flying around the release area.

"We know that the first seven days after any release are the most critical to the birds survival," said Agustin Valido, Field Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, Field Office.

"Over three weeks have passed and we still have 90 percent survival. The parrots survival chances increase with each day that passes. As they adapt to the wild, visits to supplemental feeders have declined, and some of the birds are beginning to forage and fly further away from the flock."

Once there were thousands - possibly a million - Puerto Rican parrots, but hunting and trapping nearly wiped them off the face of the island. "Our ultimate goal is to have thousands of Puerto Rican parrots throughout Puerto Rico, but we have to take it a step at a time," said Agustin Valido. "If these birds do as well as the first group, we have a super chance to increase the number of breeding pairs - a key component in the recovery effort."

For more information about the Puerto Rican parrot reintroduction program, visit:
http://southeast.fws.gov/prparrot/index.html

Caribbean National Forest, Puerto Rico -- Release site is located in a remote section of the Caribbean National Forest, about a 1-hour drive from Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, which is about 45 minutes from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
http://southeast.fws.gov/prparrot/index.html



The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has purchased 1,249 acres of the Puerto Rico's Cabo Rojo Salt Flats to triple the size of the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge. Three million dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and one and a half million dollars from the Wetland Reserve Program of the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) purchased the land located in southwestern Puerto Rico to beame part of the National Wildlife Refuge System on March 10, 1999.
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This purchase will allow the Service to conserve and protect the single most important point of convergence for migratory shorebirds in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Service officially designated the salt flats a Resource Category 1, which is the highest possible ranking that can be given to a wetland area and implies that the area is considered unique and irreplaceable on a national or ecoregional basis. The coastline, mangroves, seagrass beds, and offshore coral reefs next to the area are prime fish habitat, and are considered special aquatic sites. In addition, the seagrass beds provide feeding habitat for sea turtles and manatees.

The preservation of these wetlands is a positive step in preventing loss of habitat needed to help sustain migratory and wintering neotropical bird populations. The majority of the Cabo Rojo salt flats remain undeveloped and serve as an important stopover and wintering area for thousands of shorebirds. The salt flats are positioned in the Atlantic flyway and are a vital nesting ground for the snowy plover, least tern, Wilson's plover, black-necked stilt, and killdeer. The area and its adjacent waters also provide resting and feeding habitat for several threatened and endangered species, such as the piping plover, peregrine falcon, yellow-shouldered blackbird, brown pelican, manatee and several species of sea turtles. Indeed, no fewer than 118 bird species have been recorded for the area.

Puerto Rico Salt Flat Bahias.

Areas purchased by the Service and the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program include Fraternidad and Candelaria Lagoons and coastlines along Bahia Sucia and Bahia Salinas. In partnership with the Service, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) acquired additional portions of the salt flats for conservation. The DNER area includes Combate Beach, the southern coastline of Bahia Salinas and 75.7 acres of upland property. This purchase, utilizing Puerto Rico Highway Authority mitigation funds, in conjunction with existing DNER holdings along the coast will afford more protection to the resources and link vital habitat fragments.

The purchase and subsequent protection of the Cabo Rojo salt flats marks ten years of cooperation between Federal and Commonwealth agencies in conjunction with non-governmental groups favoring protection of the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats. —
Compiled by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.

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