ROCKPORT (AP) – The Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes 87 islands off the coast of Maine, may add as many as 46 more under a 15-year plan to preserve seabird habitat.

“By going after as many of these islands as possible, we’ll protect the best habitat that’s out there,” said Brian Benedict, deputy manager of the refuge.

Benedict said he doubts that all 87 islands will come up for sale during the 15 years covered by the plan, but he hopes to acquire as many islands or easements as possible with the funds available.

Petit Manan presently consists of 4,000 aces of mainland refuge in Washington and Hancock counties, along with 46 federally owned or protected islands scattered from Smuttynose in southwestern Maine to Old Man Island to the northeast.

With input from state biologists, conservation groups and land trusts, officials from Petit Manan determined which of Maine’s 616 historic seabird islands are worthy of protection and are regarded as vulnerable.

After months of study, 377 islands were deemed nationally significant for wildlife, meaning that 1 percent or more of a valuable seabird species, such as the federally protected roseate tern, used the island as habitat, or that the island was a nesting area for bald eagles.

Of these, 226 islands are protected already, leaving 151 vulnerable. The 87 islands listed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan are the best of the best, and they’re increasingly at risk, Benedict said.

“Many of the islands that we never considered developable in the past now have houses on them. People who have the means are finding ways,” he said.

The 87 islands under consideration would increase the size of the refuge by 154 acres.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is holding public meetings Wednesday night in Milbridge, June 8 in Augusta and June 9 in Falmouth to allow Mainers to comment on the plan.

Benedict said no islands will be taken by eminent domain. “The process is really only for willing sellers,” he said.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan is approved, six new seabird-nesting colonies also will be established during the next 15 years. Petit Manan staff and interns working in cooperation with the Audubon Society, the state and other groups now maintain nesting islands for puffins and three species of terns on six islands – Machias Seal Island, Ship Island, Matinicus Rock, Metinic Island, Petit Manan Island and Pond Island.

The six islands now harbor 98 percent of all the Atlantic puffins in America, 94 percent of the Arctic terns outside Alaska, and more than 95 percent of the nation’s federally endangered roseate terns.

“We have huge populations on our small islands,” Benedict said. “They’re very susceptible to disease outbreak, predation and food supply shortages.”

The six new islands haven’t been selected yet, but they will likely fill “geographic gaps” between existing colonies, he said.

AP-ES-06-02-04 0837EDT

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