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Alaska's Rodent-Free Rat Island Gets New Name - Hawadax

Date: 01-Jun-12
Country: ALASKA
Author: Yereth Rosen

The remote Aleutian site known for two centuries as Rat Island, notorious as the first spot in Alaska despoiled by rats, has a new, more dignified name to celebrate its hard-won rodent-free status - but it may be harder for some to pronounce.

The 10-square-mile (26-square-kilometre) island will now be known as Hawadax (pronounced "How-ah-thaa"), the traditional Aleut name it was given before a Japanese sailing ship ran aground there in the late 1700s and triggered Alaska's first rat invasion, state and federal officials said on Wednesday.

Hawadax has multiple meanings, including "entry" and "welcome," said Alaska State Historian Jo Antonson. "It sounds better than 'Rat,'" she said.

The rats that jumped ashore from a shipwreck in 1780 and their successive generations wiped out nearly all the island's native seabirds and wreaked other ecological destruction on the island, located about 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage.

In the fall of 2008, wildlife managers succeeded in eradicating the rampaging rodents by dropping rat poison onto the island from helicopter-hoisted buckets.

The $2.5 million, U.S. government-backed project was declared a success in 2010, and seabird populations decimated by the rats have begun returning.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Board on Geographic Names this month approved the island's new name, which had been championed by indigenous Aleut organizations, state and federal officials said.

Geographic name changes are very rare, Antonson said. "There really needs to be a good reason and/or local support to change a name," she said.

But the rat legacy lingers on the map in another form. The cluster of Aleutian islands to which Hawadax belongs is still known collectively as the "Rat Islands," and some of Hawadax's neighbors continue to be plagued by the bird-eating rodents.

One of those neighboring islands is Kiska. The rat infestation there is blamed on World War Two, when the island was briefly occupied by the Japanese, then retaken by U.S. forces.

Kiska is home to a huge colony of auklets, but the cliff-nesting birds are in danger of being devoured by the island's voracious rats, according to biologists.

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