St. Paul rat evades team of eradication experts

A member of the strike team refreshes a bait station at St. Paul’s harbor. (Zoë Sobel/KUCB)

It’s a packed house at a St. Paul community event. Island residents surround a table filled with trapping and tracking devices.

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Lauren Divine of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island’s Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO) shares pictures of the target.

“Here’s the rat. You can see it’s little beady eye and you can see it move,” Divine said. “These were taken the first week of September with that wildlife camera right there.”

Then the rat disappeared without a trace until October 21. And that’s been frustrating for Divine’s office with the local tribe, which helps keep the island rat-free.

“I’ve never wanted to see a dead rat or have a dead rat in my hand, but that’s very much what I want,” Divine said. “I think everyone wants to see the dead rat. They want to hold it and know that it’s dead.”

Can you spot the rat? (Courtesy ECO)

Divine says that may sound extreme. But for St. Paul, rat prevention is very important.

“It poses a serious threat to our island. It’s wildlife, its sensitive habitat. It’s an invasive species,” Divine said. “It’s something that would devastate the seabirds and would change wildlife life on the island forever.”

To stop that from happening, Divine says ECO increased its already formidable anti-rat program after the first sighting. They added traps, changed bait and installed game cameras to bolster the rat prevention measures at all points of entry on the island.

But Divine says they’ve since learned that might not be the best response.

“By placing more traps or having more human activity around, we may have scared it away or encouraged it to move it’s home location,” Divine said. “We would adjust our response in the future to that.”

That insight comes after ECO reached out to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which agreed the threat was so severe that they chartered a plane for a team of rat eradication experts.

Today they’re replacing rusty traps that have succumbed to extreme weather conditions.

“Making sure that your biosecurity measures work is really critical. You literally have one chance to catch that rat. And you you want that trap to fire when it fires,” said Chris Gill of Island Conservation. “Islands only make up less than 5 percent of the Earth’s land mass, but they harbor a disproportionate portion of endemic species,” Gill said. “Therefore, when an invasive species, such as a rat, gets to those islands, there’s a high likelihood that an extinction could occur.”

Yellow barrels sprinkled around St. Paul are part of the tribes permanent rat prevention program. (Zoë Sobel/KUCB)

Normally, St. Paul has 43 yellow barrels to catch the rats —  inside there’s a trap waiting to snare the rodents.

During their week on the island, the strike team refreshed existing bait stations and added other detection devices — game cameras and temporary stations. They’ve also brought in UV chew blocks that if the rats nibble, they’ll be able to track the invaders glowing poop.

Plus, the team did a lot of good old fashioned sleuthing.

“You have a number of hiding places on this island and you have to get into every single house and every single nook and cranny to ensure you’ve targeted every single rat on the island,” Gill said.

They inspected nearly every commercial building or abandoned structure around the fish plant.

Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty estimates the strike teams response has cost about $50,000 so far. But he says that’s a fraction of the price tag if rats were to take hold on St. Paul.

“I can’t tell you how many zeros, but it would be a lot of zeros if you were going to do an eradication,” Delehanty said.

There’s only been one island in Alaska — Hawadax, formerly known as Rat Island — where rats have been eradicated. That cost millions and it was uninhabited.

But for St. Paul to stay rat-free, Delehanty says success will depend on residents.

“The make or break is the people who live here. It’s their community. It’s their island, and it’s going to be their ongoing diligence and monitoring through the years to keep it rat-free,” Delehanty said. “That’s what will be essential.”

And Divine says ECO is up to the task.

“We scaled back the number of traps,” Divine said. “We’re using a deadly combo of peanut butter and bacon grease, and we’re switching out all of our baits from Three Musketeers to Almond Joys because apparently that is the most attractive bait for a rat.”

Now, it’s a waiting game.

A child experiences the feeling of being stuck in a glue trap. (Zoë Sobel/KUCB)

Divine says ECO will remain on high alert through the end of November, with staff checking traps and bait stations twice a month.

At that point, if there’s still no sign of the rat, they’ll reevaluate the risk and meet with the city, refuge, and strike team to decide how to proceed.

Divine says they’d all love to have a body to learn more about the furry intruder. They could determine what species of rat it is, it’s gender and use genetic testing to narrow down where it came from.

But even if they never collect a corpse, she says the whole experience has been helpful in preparing for the future.

“I hope we never get another rat because it’s exhausting,” Divine said. “But if we do, the education of just knowing the employees of each entity can work together and cover a certain area or do a certain task or divy up the work has been very helpful for us to have.”

Although this rat is still at large, Divine is aware of increased risks at the airport. With new flights originating from places like Unalaska with lower rat prevention measures, she’s concerned that will mean a higher likelihood of another unwanted rat visitor.