Rachel Rounds ascending rock cliff at Nihoa island
Rachel Rounds ascends a cliff at Nihoa after conducting a bird survey. Photo by Sheldon Plentovich

Resonating with Uninhabited Landscapes: When Remote Islands Become Home for Rachel Rounds

By Ivan Vicente, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

When most people meet employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, their imagination goes where the name of the agency takes them: “An employee that serves fish and wildlife for the United States”. The extent of how and where Service employees help fish and wildlife directly and indirectly is a remarkably wide spectrum that can even surprise some of us who’ve been in the agency for decades. This profile story is about someone who succeeds along the far extreme ends of conservation work, among the most challenging of terrains.

While aspiring to become a neuroscientist while in college, Rachel Rounds found a much different path — a continuing journey to help conserve species in some of the most fascinating and isolated realms on this planet.

This is an interview with Rachel where she relays her path in conservation, her experiences with the agency, and where she’s found deep purpose and reward in her conservation work. From the Pacific Northwest to Mauna Kea, the Mariana Islands, and Papahānaumokuākea, Rachel Rounds adapts and thrives in some of the most challenging remote environments in the Pacific Islands.

Tell me about your current job.

I am an ecologist with the Inventory and Monitoring program within Refuges based in Honolulu. I support the biological programs at all Refuges and Monuments within the Pacific Islands (IR12). My job is very diverse. I conducted seaturtle surveys on Rose Atoll and forest bird surveys in several refuges; I designed and written up protocols for plant surveys at Kalaeloa NWR; I led survey prioritization workshops; I lead an invasive plant eradication project on Nihoa; I analyzed forest bird data for Hakalau Forest and Kona NWR in the Big Island of Hawaiʻi; I also write grant proposals. It’s all over the board.

Rachel Rounds prepares the right mixture to treat invasive plants at Nihoa. Photo by Dan Link / USFWS

What inspired you to get into wildlife conservation? Any conservation heroes or influencers?

I spent a lot of time outside as a child. My family and I went camping, hiking, and backpacking frequently, and travelled all over the west going to national parks and forests. My father knew many of the wildflowers of California, and would point them out when we hiked. My grandparents were avid birders. At the time I did not think ‘oh cool, I want to save these things’, but I believe it must have influenced me. I also had an amazing biology teacher in high school who inspired me to major in biology in college. I had wanted to be a doctor, but dropped that idea quickly, and in my 4th year of college finally found ecology and conservation biology (though I still ended up as a Neuroscience major). I found my career path a bit late, but also just in time.

What was your first field experience job with the Service?

My first job with the Service was with a now defunct branch called the National Biological Service (NBS). That’s how old I am. I worked as an intern on the Palila Restoration Project on Hawaiʻi Island. I spent most of my time working at 6,000–9,000 feet on Mauna Kea, though our office was in Volcano. We searched for palila nests, banded palila, and collected vegetation data. Looking back now, it is kind of amazing what a profound effect this job had on the rest of my career. My primary career goal at this time was to work outside, I had no particular passion or interest in birds when I applied for the job.

My grandparents were avid birders (my grandfather even wrote two books about birds), but at the time I got this job out of college I was not a birder and could probably only identify a few species. I like to think that my grandparent’s passion for birds was passed along to me. Unfortunately my grandfather died while I was flying to Hawaiʻi for this job, and he never knew that I ended up following a career in avian conservation.

After the National Biological Service became the USGS-Biological Resources Discipline (BRD), I worked for BRD for a number of jobs, including in graduate school in Virginia. After my first job in Hawaiʻi I did field work in California, New Mexico, Idaho, Virginia, and Nevada. My first real job with the USFWS was as a Fish and Wildlife Biologist with the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office in Portland.

Can you tell me a little about the Section 7 work you did back when you were in Portland, OR?

A couple of decades ago, I was hired as a fire plan biologist for western Oregon to help Federal and State agencies protect T/E species while fighting fires. There were not a lot of fires in western Oregon at that time, so I had some free time. I ended up doing a lot of work on two endangered plants in the Willamette Valley (Nelson’s checkermallow and Bradshaw’s lomatium), conducting surveys and working on recovery actions for them.

How do the experiences you had working with Ecological Services on Section 7 influence how you conduct your work now?

Working in an ES office, and especially on Section 7 consultations, really influenced the way I problem solve. The Section 7 consultation is a step-wise process that works through a decision analysis in a structured and logical way. I feel like I apply this same thought process to a lot of my work and writing today. In addition, my experience with endangered species, particularly with Hawaiian forest birds and Hawaiian waterbirds has carried over into my current position.

Tell me about your experience working in Saipan. What projects and species were you involved with?

I was hired by the local Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) government to help with permitting of development projects on Saipan that affected T/E species. It was a tough job because of cultural and language differences, and because I was trying to enforce a Federal law on a community that wasn’t always supportive of it or of the U.S. government. I primarily worked with the endangered nightingale reed-warbler, since it was often found in habitats slated for development. The reed-warbler is still one of my favorite birds, and is very closely related to the Nihoa millerbird that I work with now. In fact they sound so similar that the first years I worked on the Nihoa millerbird project, I kept calling the millerbird a reed-warbler.

I also did many surveys for native species including birds, plants, and coconut crabs. I traveled to many of the Northern Mariana Islands to conduct surveys for the reed-warbler and the Micronesian megapode, and also worked with the Mariana crow on Rota. The survey work on the outer islands was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my career.

Rachel takes a selfie at Midway Atoll NWR with Laysan albatross adults and chicks in the background. Photo by Rachel Rounds / USFWS

What does Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument mean to you? How has it impacted your work life and you personally?

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is a special place because of its remoteness and isolation from the “real world.” To me it’s a place mostly free of humans and human impacts, a place where wildlife can still be wild. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work in the Monument, and to have been to multiple islands. Each time I go out there, I am in awe. There are not many places in the world left like this, huge protected areas with minimal human impacts. It’s not untouched or pristine, but it’s better off than most natural places left in the world.

What are other favorite and less-favorite species you’ve worked with and why?

Oh, there’s so many choices. I can tell you who I don’t like. I don’t like brown noddies, because they dive bomb and scream at me all day and night. They are doing their jobs being protective parents, but I still resent them. I also watched an adult great frigatebird predate a brand new great frigatebird chick that was left unattended at its nest for a few seconds. The adult swooped down, grabbed the chick, and ate it right above us. That scarred me.

I love curious birds. The Nihoa finch will come right up and peck at your shoes and trekking poles. Nihoa millerbirds, once tried to forage in a coworkers nostril. Masked booby chicks come up and check us out, sometimes playing with our shoes and backpacks.

I also bond with species that I work closely with. My first job in conservation was studying the palila on Mauna Kea, and that bird and place have a special place in my heart forever. I still make an effort to do palila surveys every year, even though it breaks my heart how their population keeps declining. Twenty years ago, I was monitoring a dark-eyed junco nest in Idaho and it snowed in July. The parents just kept incubating the nest covered in snow, and since then juncos have been one of my favorite birds.

What was your first impression of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and what is your impression now after seven years?

My first impression was “how is it possible for there to be these many seabirds and why are they so loud!” I had no idea what a seabird island haven was like. I don’t think you can truly understand it until you have experienced it. I have had other first-timers to the Monument just be blown away by all the seabirds. There’s so much life on these islands and most people have very little idea they exist.

Ten years later, I’ve learned to tune out the seabirds a lot (except the brown noddies that divebomb me). Now I see the changes — how vegetation changes after drought or rainfall, how some seabirds are present in thousands in one year, but then not the next, and I wonder why. I also feel a sense of relief that they look the same mostly, that they are still stable in this changing world, and I hope that a biologist in 50 years will see the same things I see and experience and feel the same wonder.

Describe a conservation success story in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument or other Pacific islands that have you been a part of and how you feel about it.

I was part of the Nihoa millerbird translocation in 2011. I had just started working for the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office, and I was asked last minute to go on the trip because someone dropped out and I was one of the few people in the office with bird banding experience. I was so impressed with the professionalism and dedication of the people who had spent years planning and organizing the project; the logistics were incredibly complicated, and moving an endangered songbird on a boat is tricky business. The project succeeded and Nihoa millerbirds are now thriving on Laysan.

This trip was also my first time going to Nihoa and PMNM and really influenced the next decade of my career. I am currently still working on Nihoa and also working on plans for future Hawaiian forest bird translocations.

What is the experience of isolation like for you at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument?

Are you really isolated when you’re surrounded by 100,000s raucous seabirds?

Right now, during COVID, these trips provide an opportunity to forget about the stress of the real world. Leaving the world behind can lift a weight off the shoulders, even if just for a week. I am introverted so I enjoy the time to recharge and just sit and listen to the birds, the wind, and the waves.

What is the most exciting and compelling part of your job now?

The most compelling aspect of my job is the diversity of work and the number of places that I support each year.

What brings me the most joy is getting out and seeing the world. The opportunity to observe species in their native habitats mostly unaltered by man. There is a sense of wonder I get every time I go to a remote island. I also am happiest being outside, so having a job that allows me to work outside a lot is very rewarding and exciting. I’m very lucky and grateful that I have managed to keep doing field work this long into my career. I have definitely spent months and months sitting in front of my computer writing and analyzing data, so I am grateful for every trip to a Monument or Refuge.

What do you feel is the most relevant aspect of your roles for wildlife, Monuments, refuges and future generations?

I want to leave the world a better place. I am leading the effort to eradicate Cenchrus echinatus from Nihoa, and I feel that if that can be successful, I will be leaving Nihoa and the Monument in a better place. The actions might be small on a global scale but they’re what one person can do. I can’t change the course of climate change by my actions, but I can minimize the effects of climate change in small ways through my work.

Have you learned something personal (outside of the job) about yourself while in the monument or other islands in the Pacific?

I’ve learned that I can be really tough when I need to be. Remote fieldwork can be very challenging. The exhaustion, injuries, sleepless nights on rocks with seabirds calling loudly an inch away from your pillow, lack of good fresh food, all this can really wear on you, and yet I’m now more resilient working and living in these wildest of places.

Provide your perspective on some of the top challenges that the Monument and its species are facing today and how you feel about the future in respect to those challenges.

I think the biggest challenge that our Refuges and Monuments are facing is climate change. I think the threats from climate change far outweigh all the other challenges facing these lands and species, and often makes the other threats worse (ie. invasive species threats).

Do you have a vision for what some refuge units may become in the near future?

My first vision is for the place where I work on the most right now, Nihoa — where I envision a Cenchrus echinatus free island.

For all Refuges and Monuments, I think that resiliency is going to be important with the threats from climate change. Having habitats and species in safer alternate spaces is key, so they have a better chance to survive and adapt as the climate changes.

The rugged Nihoa horizon is among the most challenging landscapes to do field work in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo by Lauren Weisenberger / USFWS