In a ruling from the bench this morning, Judge Helen Gillmor of the federal district court in Honolulu ordered the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”) to designate critical habitat for the O`ahu `elepaio (a native forest bird) by October 31, 2001, rejecting the federal defendants’ request to delay designation until October 2004. The court’s ruling brings to a successful close a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawai’i (CCH) to secure protection for this critically imperiled bird under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“We’re pleased that the court recognized the need to hold the Service’s feet to the fire on this one,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “We don’t have many native forest birds left on O`ahu, and we need to protect the elepaio’s critical habitat if we want to have a fighting chance to save this one.”
Sightings of the O`ahu `elepaio — once abundant in forested areas throughout O`ahu — have plummeted in recent years, with only an estimated 1,500 birds remaining, and the bird now occupies only about 4 percent of its original, historic range. Habitat destruction currently poses one of the primary threats to the `elepaio’s survival and recovery. For example, the H-3 freeway (completed in 1997) cut through Hälawa Valley, home to one of only seven remaining populations of the bird. Ordnance-induced fires and related military activities at Mäkua Military Reservation and Schofield Barracks threaten a large part of the bird’s remaining habitat in the eastern Wai`anae Mountains. Suburban and golf course development also displaces habitat the O`ahu `elepaio needs.
“Designating critical habitat will force federal agencies like the Army and the Department of Transportation to take a hard look at activities they fund, approve, and carry out — such as military training and new highway construction — to make sure that they won’t destroy habitat that the O`ahu `elepaio needs for recovery,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “It’s a powerful tool to help us get a handle on Hawai’i’s extinction crisis.”
“Critical habitat” consists of those areas that must be managed to permit an imperiled species to recover to a level where it is safe, for the foreseeable future, from the danger of extinction. Critical habitat designation generally has little impact on private land owners since it is directed solely at actions carried out, funded or approved by federal agencies. Nonetheless, designating critical habitat confers significant benefits on Hawai’i’s listed species by protecting them from federal agency actions that can adversely modify or destroy the habitat on which these species depend for their survival and recovery. Also, designating critical habitat performs an important educational role, informing the public as well as state and local governments about areas essential to the conservation of Hawai’i’s native species.
Conservation Council for Hawai’i, the Hawai’i affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, is a non-profit citizens’ organization with over 300 members on O`ahu, approximately 550 members elsewhere in Hawai’i, and several hundred members in other parts of the United States. CCH seeks to promote environmental health and education in general, and the conservation and management of Hawai’i’s natural resources in particular, including imperiled Hawaiian forest birds like the O`ahu `elepaio.
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) is a non-profit, public interest, environmental law firm. The Mid-Pacific office, which opened in Honolulu in 1988, has represented dozens of environmental, native Hawaiian, and community organizations in litigation and administrative proceedings.