Caretakers Helping to Preserve the Peace on Protection Island : Birds Return to Where Developers Once Held Sway

Times Staff Writer

This island is for the birds.

The skies, shores, cliffs, meadows, shrubs and trees here are alive with rhinoceros auklets, glaucous-winged gulls, pigeon guillemots, tufted puffins, cormorants, black oystercatchers and many other feathery flocks.

Waterfowl including harlequin ducks, oldsquaws and surf scoters flutter through the waters of Puget Sound embracing this 1.8-mile-long, 6/10ths-of-a-mile-wide, boomerang-shaped island that rises 250 feet above the sea.

Protection Island is the nesting habitat for 75% of the sea-bird population of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. More than 60,000 birds call this small island home.

Half the breeding population of rhinoceros auklets in the 48 contiguous states is here. So is the largest gull colony in the state of Washington as well as bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

Yet, man was on the verge of moving in and squeezing out the birds.

For more than a century, a third of the island was farmed for wheat, alfalfa and potatoes. The birds tolerated the farmers. The few farmers tolerated the birds.

But in 1969, developers bought Protection Island, which is two miles off the Northern Washington coast, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets Puget Sound.

The developers plotted 831 lots, each averaging 80 to 100 feet in the gull rookeries, nesting areas of the auklets, tufted puffins, eagles and cormorants.

They bulldozed 7 1/2 miles of dirt roads. They put in a marina, a 2,600-foot-long grassy airstrip. Every inch of the 365-acre island was checkered with roads and home sites, except for 48 acres on the west end, the Zella M. Schultz Sea-Bird Sanctuary owned and managed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Game.

Over the years, 570 of the lots were sold for between $2,000 and $10,000. Seven homes were built. Many property owners barged trailers out to the islands to their lots. Some erected makeshift dwellings.

The future looked grim for the birds.

Many wells were drilled but none produced potable water. There is no electricity on the island, no sewage system, no water to drink and there are no telephones.

Jefferson County authorities refused to issue any more building permits because of the lack of drinking water. The Audubon Society and other nature groups launched a campaign to stop the development, to protect Protection Island and set it aside solely for birds.

The campaign was successful. In October, 1982, Congress passed and President Reagan signed an act establishing Protection Island as a National Wildlife Refuge and authorized the secretary of the interior to acquire all the property on the island except the sea-bird sanctuary on the west end, which continues to be administered by the state of Washington.

"We bought one of the seven homes on the island in 1977 and lived in it two years," said Bill Sterling, 40, a Seattle ambulance driver. "We felt guilty. We realized it was wrong to erect houses here. People should not be here. Human presence threatened to wipe out the wild bird population."

Since last April, Sterling and his wife, Suzanne, a lifelong bird watcher, have been caretakers of Protection Island for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are the island's only full-time residents.

The Sterlings sold their Protection Island home in 1979 and moved back to Seattle, where they became active in the campaign to stop development of the island, to set aside all of it as a bird sanctuary.

They returned to the island as caretakers at the invitation of the Fish and Wildlife Service. They are volunteers, receiving no income. But they live rent-free in the home they once owned and have all their utilities paid and are provided a four-wheel-drive vehicle to use in keeping unauthorized people from coming ashore.

The six other families who own homes on the island are permitted to keep them under an arrangement with the federal government that stipulates the structures will eventually be purchased by the Fish and Wildlife Service. These families use their homes for weekends and vacations.

Bill Sterling works four 10-hour days, then works three days for an ambulance company in Seattle. When he is working for the ambulance company, he stays in the city and his wife remains here, the only person on the island.

"Many people could not take the isolation but I enjoy it. I am busy all the time," Suzanne Sterling said. "I maintain continuous bird-population counts. I record what the birds are doing, what they are eating. I check dead birds for banding. I make note of anything unusual."

Once a week she spends three hours walking around the island perimeter, observing bird activity on the 150-foot-high cliffs and in the waters around the island.

"It's never quiet. Not with thousands of birds hollering at you all the time," she laughed.

Violet Spit on the island's east end is a seal rookery, with 150 to 200 seals on the beach often barking in unison. Whales and porpoises swim in the water surrounding Protection Island.

The Sterlings' two-story, 1,000-square-foot A-frame home is perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. Winds frequently blast and sweep the island. When it rains or snows, gusts carry precipitation up the cliffs so it rains or snows up instead of down at their home.

Throughout the night the island is bombarded with the racket of thousands of auklets flying to and from the sea to feed on fish after dark. The island is pocked with holes leading to auklet burrows. Auklets rest, breed and nest underground.

The Sterlings have a generator for electrical power; however, their TV set is powered by battery. They use propane to fuel their stove and refrigerator. They have a once-a-year renewable agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to remain on the island as volunteer caretakers.

"We have no intention of leaving. We love it out here with the birds," Suzanne insisted.

Bill echoed her sentiments.

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