Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge at foreground with U.S. Navy vessels in background at Pearl Harbor. Photo by USFWS.

Small Urban Wildlife Refuge Crucial To Birds’ Survival

By Jan Peterson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Region

Joshua Ream’s studies and career has taken him all over the nation, from Pennsylvania and Tennessee to Alaska and now, Hawai‘i.

After enjoying jobs with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a cultural anthropologist, Ream now serves as project leader/wildlife refuge manager at the Service’s O‘ahu/Maui National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Kahuku, Hawai‘i. We chatted with him about his passion for conservation, the origin of the 50-year-old Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, the reconstruction of the Betty Nagamine Bliss Memorial Overlook at the Honouliuli Unit and what keeps him excited about his work with the Service.

Ream also goes by Xíxch’i Toowóo, the name given to him by the late Tlingit elder Marge Byrd during his honorary adoption into the Kiks.adi Clan of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan at Wrangell, Alaska in 2015. It means “frog feelings” or “caring for frogs.”

Joshua Ream, Refuge Manager at Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, working at Honouliuli unit of the refuge.

Q: How did you get interested in biology and animal sciences?

A: I always knew I enjoyed the outdoors and would like to be involved in a career field that involved it in some way. I was interested in veterinary medicine, but I gradually transitioned over to wildlife biology. Before starting my Ph.D., I considered myself a biologist. Then I got a National Science Foundation fellowship that required me to pursue interdisciplinary research and my degree became ethnobiology. I was looking at how local knowledge and cultural beliefs play into people’s relationships with animals and how it can inform management. Long story short, I really got into it. I really started to feel I was finding my niche. So rarely are we managing wildlife; we’re managing the people and their effect on the wildlife.

A pair of ae‘o (Hawaiian stilt) standing at Honouliuli wetlands. Photo by Greg Koob, USFWS

Q: Tell us about the work you do now.

A: The refuge complex on O‘ahu has five units — James Campbell, which is located in Kahuku on the North Shore; the Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the Honouliuli Unit on the West Loch of Pearl Harbor, the Waiawa Unit in the Middle Loch, and the Kalealoa Unit at what used to be Barber’s Point; and the O‘ahu Forest Unit, which is the biggest unit at 4,500 acres in the upper slopes of the northern Ko‘olau mountains.

The O‘ahu Forest Unit is inaccessible for the public and even staff, so it’s gotten the least amount of conservation over time. But it is on our radar to incrementally increase our conservation efforts at that unit. Kalaeloa is kind of a dry scrub land set aside for two native plant species that are endangered — the ‘Ewa hinahina (Achyranthes splendens var. rotundata) and ‘akoko (Euphorbia skottsbergii var. skottsbergii). The other three are fresh-water wetlands for four endangered birds: the ae‘o (Hawaiian stilt), ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (Hawaiian coot), ‘alae ‘ula (Hawaiian gallinule, or moorhen), and koloa maoli (Hawaiian duck).

Hawaiian duck or koloa at Honouliuli wetlands in Pearl Harbor NWR. Photo by Greg Koob, USFWS

Q: Why is the Honouliuli Unit of the Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge so special?

A: Honouliuli is 36.6 acres and almost entirely consists of two ponds that we pump fresh water into so we can manage the water level seasonally. The ‘alae ke‘oke‘o and ‘alae ‘ula don’t care too much about water levels. They tend to nest in higher-vegetation areas and hide from predators, and that’s a little bit different from the ae‘o. A lot of our habitat management plan is around the needs of the ae‘o. When water levels drop, ae‘o like to nest right in the vegetation line out in the open. Their strategy when there’s a predator nearby is to fly off the nest and try to distract them. That hasn’t been quite as successful of a strategy as hiding in the vegetation. It requires the water levels to be dropped so they have the space in between to build their nests. During ae‘o nesting season in the spring, we start to drop the water levels, and when it’s over, we drop it completely to get in there with tractors and weed whackers to take out some of the non-native vegetation. It does grow back very quickly, but that’s the best time to do it.

Q: Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge is celebrating its 50th anniversary. How did the refuge get its start? Is it true that a love story is involved?

A: Betty Nagamine Bliss was a schoolteacher in the area. She was very concerned when the airport wanted to destroy or modify a reef to install what is now the reef runway at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, in Honolulu. She started this conservation fight and met with the players at the time to discuss how they’re going to mitigate the negative effects of that runway. The discussions she started having with the Federal Aviation Administration resulted in coordination with the U.S. Navy to identify that mitigation site, which became the Honouliuli Unit. And she did end up marrying the guy in charge of the efforts on the FAA side, Herman Bliss.

Former observation platfor after arson incident in 2021. Photo by USFWS

In 2016, we built an observation platform to oversee the wetlands. It is one of Pearl Harbor’s only publicly accessible viewing sites for our national wildlife refuge system. It was built and named after her in her honor.

Unfortunately, last December, there was an arson and it was burned to the ground. With the pilings and everything, the structure originally cost over $800,000 to build. The silver lining is that those pilings were still intact and usable. They were the most expensive components. We were able to acquire money to rebuild the platform and it was completed Dec. 11. We will have reprints of the interpretive signs replaced soon and hope to have a cultural blessing and ribbon-cutting ceremony in early 2023. We plan to invite members of Betty Bliss’ family.

Refuge staff rebuilding boardwalk at Honouliuli unit of Pearl Harbor NWR. Photo by USFWS

Q: This refuge is located in a very urban area, with nearly 500,000 people living within 25 miles of it. Why are these urban refuges so important?

A: Starting with animals, there are very few pockets of secure wet habitats still existing on O‘ahu. As our island population and housing and everything else continues to grow, it’s really important that we protect even these very small areas that are crucial to endangered species.

From a people standpoint, the Service is a little bit different in our mission from the National Park Service. Animals are first and foremost; however, part of our conservation mission is working with others, including the educational component to help people develop a conservation ethic, to care about the conservation of these important resources.

Students observe wildlife at Honouliuli during an environmental education class.

Hawai‘i Nature Center, in Honolulu, does a program and they bring in more than 4,000 students every year. Classes do small projects within the refuges and get an on-the-ground view of our conservation efforts. Students from Radford High School also visit the site as part of a college course at Kapi‘olani Community College, and there are several ongoing graduate projects from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa as well.

Q: What keeps you excited about your work with our national wildlife refuges?

A: For me personally, it’s the diversity of our workload. You’ll hear this from anyone in refuges — we have a tremendous responsibility with limited people and resources. This means we work with what we have.

There’s a lot of pivoting and so many of us are in these positions not for the money, but for the meaningfulness of the job. We see on a daily basis how our actions and decisions affect a multitude of species on the landscape. That meaningfulness is what excites so many of us about the job.

Having to pivot to means I’m constantly challenged. As an interdisciplinarian, I know a little about a lot but not necessarily a lot about a little. I depend on a whole team, internal and external, of experts to help inform the management decisions that I make. The ability to have and be required to explore those relationships with people with all these bits and pieces of our larger conservation puzzle is really exciting to me. Our tractor operators and maintenance managers are equally important as our biologists.

Wetlands at Honouliuli with observation tower at background. Photo by USFWS