Court Backs Protective Measures for Rare Hawaiian Bird

Palila by Robby Kohley
The Palila will benefit from a recent court ruling in Hawai'i allowing for aerial hunting of certain non-native animals. Photo credit by Robby Kohley.

(Washington, D.C., May 6, 2013) Thanks to a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaiʻi, actions to protect the last remaining habitat for the Critically Endangered Palila from destructive browsing and grazing by feral sheep, mouflon-hybrid sheep, and goats can move forward.

The court ruling allows the state to resume aerial hunting of these non-native grazing mammals in the subalpine habitat on the Mauna Kea volcano on the island of Hawaiʻi. The ungulates' browsing destroys and degrades the mamane-naio forest on which the Palila depends.

Earthjustice, representing the Hawai‘i Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Hawai‘i Audubon Society, and the National Audubon Society, has led the court battle on the issue since 1978. In a series of orders beginning in 1979, the Court found that, to prevent the bird's extinction, the state must permanently remove the mammals from the Palila's designated Critical Habitat through all necessary means, including aerial hunts. The state had suspended the hunts following passage of a Hawaiʻi County ordinance in July 2012 that prohibited them. The Court held that, under the U.S. Constitution, the federal Endangered Species Act trumps the county law.

“We reached a court-ordered agreement with the state in 1998 that a minimum of two aerial hunts per year were needed if we were to have any chance of removing sheep and goats from Mauna Kea,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “The state should not have suspended those hunts without talking to us and the Court first. That decision really set back efforts to save the Palila, but hopefully we can get back on track.”

“We applaud the continuing work of Earthjustice and the plaintiff group to ensure that this vital conservation effort maintains momentum,” said George Wallace, Vice President for Oceans and Islands at American Bird Conservancy. “Fencing Palila critical habitat and removing the ungulates are essential to saving the Palila, and completing both these tasks is within reach.”

The population of the Palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper, has declined 66 percent decline in the past decade, with fewer than 2,200 birds left. Introduced sheep and goats browse the endemic mamane tree, whose seeds comprise about 90 percent of the Palila's diet. Due mainly to habitat destruction by browsing mammals, the range of the Palila has contracted to only about 5 percent of its historical size.

Earthjustice did not learn until February 2013 that the state had unilaterally suspended the aerial hunts after February 2012. Earthjustice then contacted the state and asked it to return to Court to resolve concerns that state employees and contractors conducting the hunts might be subject to County prosecution. The state, Earthjustice, and the plaintiffs, jointly asked the Court to rule that the County ordinance did not prohibit the court-ordered efforts to protect Palila. With the Court's ruling that federal law preempts application of the County ordinance, the Department of Lands and Natural Resources resumed the hunts at the end of April 2013.

In the past, removal efforts were hampered because there was no way to keep sheep and goats from migrating back into the Palila's critical habitat once the helicopters left. However, the State has now built nearly 36 miles of ungulate-proof fence that protects Palila critical habitat by cutting off the main sheep immigration routes.

Federal and state agencies and a host of conservation organizations, including ABC, have taken a variety of steps to slow or reverse a horrific decline in native bird populations in Hawai‘i. Seventy one endemic bird species have become extinct out of a total of at least 113 that existed just prior to human colonization. Of the remaining 42, 32 are federally listed, and ten of those have not been seen for up to 40 years. Examples of remediation work include: a predator-proof fence – the first of its kind in the United States – has been constructed to keep non-native feral cats and dogs, mongooses, and rats out of seabird nesting habitat at Kaʻena Point on Oʻahu; Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge has been fenced to keep out ungulates, especially pigs, and undergone extensive reforestation; and the creation of a second population of the endangered Millerbird on Laysan Island is showing very encouraging early signs of success.