Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaiʻi issued an order clearing the way for the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to resume aerial hunts to remove grazing mammals from the last forest habitat of the critically endangered palila bird (Loxioides bailleui) atop Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaiʻi.
Earthjustice, representing the Hawaiʻi Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Hawaiʻi Audubon Society and the National Audubon Society, has been in court since 1978 to protect the palila from feral sheep and goats and mouflon sheep that ravage the māmane-naio forest on which the palila depends.
In a series of orders beginning in 1979, the Court found that, to prevent the bird’s extinction, DLNR must permanently remove the mammals from the palila’s designated critical habitat through all necessary means, including aerial hunts. DLNR had suspended the hunts following passage of a Hawaiʻi County ordinance in July 2012 that sought to ban them. The Court held that, under the U.S. Constitution, the federal Endangered Species Act trumps the county law.
“There is universal agreement among Hawaiʻi forest bird experts that sheep and goats are the number one threat to the palila’s survival,” said Linda Paul, President of the Hawaiʻi Audubon Society. “DLNR needs to take immediate, aggressive steps to remove these mammals, or we risk losing the palila forever.”
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 māmane (Sophora chysophylla) tree, whose seeds comprise about 90 percent of the palila’s diet. Due mainly to habitat destruction by grazing mammals, the range of the palila has contracted to only about 5 percent of its historical size.
“We reached a court-ordered agreement with DLNR 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. “DLNR 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.”
Earthjustice did not learn until February 2013 that DLNR had unilaterally suspended the aerial hunts the prior year. Earthjustice then contacted DLNR and prodded it to return to Court to resolve concerns that state employees and contractors conducting the hunts might be subject to County prosecution. DLNR and Earthjustice, representing the conservation groups, 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, DLNR intends to resume aerial hunts by 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,” said Robert Harris, Director of the Hawaiʻi Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We went back to court in 2009 to get DLNR to live up to its promise to build a mouflon-proof fence to protect palila critical habitat and now there are nearly 24 miles of fencing, cutting off the main migration routes. Thus, after more than three decades of effort, with the resumption of aerial hunts, DLNR can finally comply with the court orders to remove the sheep and goats that have been threatening the palila’s survival.”