ANCHORAGE — Rat Island was once overrun with rats. But with the rats dead and gone after having eaten grain pellets laced with poison, two Alaska Native groups say it’s time for a name-change.
They want the island to have back its original Aleut name: Hawadax.
The word, pronounced Hah-wah-vaah, is the oldest name found for the 6,871-acre island that sits at the far end of the Aleutian Island chain in southwest Alaska. The word is directional in nature and likely means “over there,” said Karen Pletnikoff, community environmental and safety manager for the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, which is being joined in the name-change proposal by the Aleut Corp.
“The current name Rat Island doesn’t reflect the nature of the island now that the rats have been eradicated,” Pletnikoff said.
Aleut Corp. board member Sharon Guenther Lind said the island needs a new name, one “that is meaningful to our people and our culture.”
The island of grass-covered volcanic rock about 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage got its unflattering moniker when a sea captain in the 1800s noticed the island was infested with rats. That was decades after a rat-infested Japanese ship went aground in 1780, spilling hungry Norwegian rats that decimated the island’s native bird populations.
The rodent takeover was such a success that in 1937 the island became officially known as Rat Island.
The Aleutian Pribilof Island Association and the Aleut Corp. have submitted their name-change proposal to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which sent it to the Alaska Historical Commission for review and comment, said Alaska state historian Jo Antonson.
So far, none of the comments are negative, Antonson said.
“There is widespread support for this,” she said.
The rats had their way until 2008 when a decision a made to get rid of the rats on the island, which now is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Getting rid of the rats required dropping of hundreds of pounds of poisonous bait pellets. Now, nary a rat can now be found on Rat Island.
Scientists are turning their attention to what has come back to the island now that the rats are gone. Listening devices on the island picked up the sounds of storm petrels — something not heard when the rats ruled the island. Refuge manager Steve Delehanty thinks more species of birds will be returning to the island now that it is rat-free.
“I think the name change is a great idea,” he said.
Antonson said the name Rat Island could be history by this summer.