What do you do when albatrosses and planes are flying in the same airspace at a naval range? You may say, “Great Scott! Population control!” Laysan Albatrosses have been at risk on the island of Kauai since the early 1900’s due to human impacts and animal predation. However, innovative collaborations with non-traditional conservation partners have simultaneously helped to increase nest success while avoiding collisions with planes.
“Holy Kryptonite! Collaborative Conservation!”

Finding common ground with entities that do not have a conservation incentive may seem unattainable at times, but understanding human dimensions and bridging interests may be the secret to furthering bird-conservation efforts. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1985 to “protect and enhance migratory seabird and Hawaiian goose populations and their habitats.” However, the nearby Navy Pacific Missile Range, reasonably, had a very different mission. Since the potential of Laysan albatross collisions with aircraft were a critical issue, the Navy contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct albatross abatement through egg removal and destruction. In 2005, the program funding was cut and eggs were beginning to hatch.

Word reached the public that the Navy was going to dispose of chicks and ready-to-hatch eggs to prevent them from becoming additional flight hazards. The prospect of disposing of the birds created a significant public outcry. Brenda Zaun, the Kauai National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex biologist offered an alternative.

“It is crucial to know the species you’re working with,” said Zaun. “We can’t change albatross behavior – we can’t make them nest somewhere else, so we have to work with it and change our tactics to achieve the outcome we want.” Despite very different agency missions, all parties agreed to work together and move the eggs to the refuge to be fostered by nesting adults. “I piped up and said I could take some of the eggs because we always had some pairs that laid infertile eggs. The next day the USDA showed up at my office with 4 newly hatched chicks wrapped in a towel and 4 ready-to-hatch eggs.”

So the program began. Zaun swapped the viable eggs from the naval base for infertile eggs found with nesting adults on the refuge. To everyone’s elation, all eggs were accepted by the new foster parents, increasing hatching success by 13%. “I was ecstatic,” said Zaun. “The Navy had been disposing of the eggs for almost two decades and this was an opportunity to save some eggs and increase Kauai’s albatross population.” In year two of the program, 78% of the chicks successfully fledged. By year three, numbers had reached 93%.

Every agency has different uniforms, missions and priorities. Divergent missions are inevitable and for good reason, so all bases are covered. The solution is finding the pocket that overlaps. “No one could deny that this was a win-win situation for the albatrosses and the Navy’s public relations,” said Zaun. “They were very proud of the results and we worked well together. Over the years as we learned more, I tweaked the protocol to increase hatch success, and for the most part everyone was always receptive and amenable to changes.”

There hardly is a one-size-fits-all option. Through a better understanding of human dimensions and collaborative dialogue, you will often find that human priorities can align with our invaluable bird conservation efforts. For the Laysan Albatrosses, the program was unquestionably a success. It didn’t take a super hero, just out-of-the-box thinking, the fostering of partnerships, education and a couple of real collaboration “capes.”