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Boobies & Bullets

By Emily Hauck, Environmental Outreach Specialist, MCBH | Marine Corps Base Hawaii | September 12, 2019

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The Kaneohe Bay Range Training Facility is located in the northeastern corner of Marine Corps Base Hawaii in the Ulupa'u Crater.  Nestled downrange just outside of the impact area are approximately 2,500 federally protected tree-dwelling seabirds.

The crater hosts two competing priorities. One is the mission to train Marines in the use of their combat weapons and to maintain their combat readiness. The other is conservation of natural resources present in the crater, which in this case means protecting one of only two Red-footed booby colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands.

As we look to the future, the delicate balance remains between keeping Marines operationally ready and providing stewardship of our natural and cultural resources for years to come.

Every year, over 10,000 Marines, Soldier, Sailors, Federal Law Enforcement Agents, and reservists use the approximately 160 acre Ulupa'u Crater to engage in weapons training, including small arms, and heavy weapons. Located in the heart of the range sits the 25 acre Ulupa’u Head Wildlife Management Area (WMA), a nesting site for Migratory Bird Protection Act (MBTA) protected Red-footed Boobies, or 'ā. These seabirds seem oblivious to the millions of rounds flying down range, and over the years have proven to be remarkably resilient. That does not make them immune to bullets. Seabirds should never be used as target practice. The intentional killing of wildlife is punishable by law and could potentially lead to the permanent closure of the range.

Red-footed Boobies are the smallest of three species of boobies that nest in the main Hawaiian Islands. Adults have a wingspan of about 40 inches, are white with black wingtips, sport a blue bill and have distinctive red feet. They, as well as other species of Hawaiian seabirds, are protected by state laws and the federal MBTA, which was established in 1918 to combat over-hunting and poaching that supplied the commercial trade of migratory birds. Per the MBTA, the intentional pursuit, hunting, taking, capture, killing, or selling of migratory birds is punishable with up to a year in jail and a fine up to $10,000 per bird.

The Booby is not alone in its Ulupa'u Crater residency. The albatross, or Mōlī, is a ground nesting seabird that intermittently visits the crater from October to late spring. If you spot an albatross on the range, report it to Range Control so that proper steps can be taken to insure the safety of this federally protected seabird.

Dry grasses and strong trade winds make for a deadly combination if a fire breaks out. Since 1990, unintentional fires have killed over 150 seabirds. Hot motors from mortars and rockets can quickly lead to a fiery disaster, killing birds that refuse to leave their nest or abandon their young. If you spot smoke, immediately cease fire, contact Range Control, do not attempt to put out the fire yourself, and wait for further instructions. There are methods in place, such as the Ulupa'u Head Fire Management Plan, for fire prevention and control to protect this unique seabird nesting site. Base Environmental has also been working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Pacific Rim Conservation, and Oikonos, to introduce decoy boobies, alternative nesting areas, and execute a relocation study to create a greater buffer zone between the birds nesting habitat and the active firing area.

The resiliency of these Hawaiian seabirds cannot be understated. Fire and stray bullets are not the only risks to the nesting birds at Ulupa'u. Hidden in the tall grasses, beneath the nests, are killers. Invasive predators, such as mongoose and feral cats, present a very serious threat to the continued survival of the Red-footed Booby population. MCBH has an active animal control program that includes the trapping and removal of these introduced animals. Trapping has helped control this constant threat to the seabird colony, as well as other seabird and waterbird species found on MCBH. If you find a trap with an animal in it, leave it in the trap and notify Base Environmental immediately.

The Ulupa'u Wildlife Management Area hosts one of the two large populations of Red-footed Boobies found on the main Hawaiian Islands; the other is located on Kauai in a US Fish & Wildlife Refuge. It is extremely important that this co-existence between Marines and Mother Nature continues to thrive. MCBH sets an example of resilience and tolerance when it comes to the preservation of a federally protected species.


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