The "Improbable" Success of Project Puffin

Jun 22, 2015

Humans are unique for, among other things, our ability to drive other species extinct at an unprecedented rate. Stephen Kress is among a growing number of conservation biologists who counter that we also have the power - and responsibility - to restore what we've damaged. Project Puffin is Kress's legacy.

Nineteenth century hunters all but eliminated (extirpated is the official term) puffins from islands off the coast of Maine. By 1902, there was just a single nesting pair on Matinicus Rock. Even after seabird hunting was banned in the early 1900's, puffins didn't bounce back. When Kress arrived at Audubon's Hog Island Camp in 1969, there were still only two small breeding colonies in the whole state, and many had forgotten - or given up on - puffins as a Maine bird.

The decline of Maine's puffins is far from a rare case. A recent study concluded that – even by the most conservative estimates – we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event. The Center for Biological Diversity warns that between a third and half of all species on Earth could be on the path to extinction by the middle of this century. Seabirds, like puffins, are among the most vulnerable, with an estimated 28 percent globally threatened.

There are rays of hope, though, and Maine's puffins are one of them. Over the course of forty years, Kress and the "puffineers" of the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin (which Kress founded) have overcome natural challenges and widespread skepticism, reestablishing a thousand pairs of nesting puffins on five Maine islands.

Kress and co-author Derrick Jackson tell the story of the first forty years of puffin restoration in a new book Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock. However improbable, Project Puffin has undoubtedly been successful. Still, Kress says there are always new challenges arising (he lists commercial fishing and climate change) and new lessons to learn and share. He says he foresees no end to the work.