Conservation Council for Hawai’i (“CCH”), represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, filed suit in federal district court today against Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, and Jamie Rappaport Clark, Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”), to compel them to finalize a proposed rule to list the O`ahu `elepaio, a native forest bird, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The Service published a proposed rule to list the O`ahu ‘elepaio on October 6, 1998, but failed to comply with the ESA’s strict mandate to finalize the proposal within one year. On October 26, 1999, CCH sent a letter to Secretary Babbitt and Director Clark warning that, unless they promptly finalized the proposed rule to list the O`ahu `elepaio, CCH would sue to compel them to do so.
The O`ahu `elepaio is unique to the island of O`ahu. It was formerly found in forested areas throughout the island and inhabited 75 percent of the island’s land mass. Because of its abundance and wide distribution, naturalists in the early 1900’s identified it as “[t]he one indigenous forest bird that appears to successfully withstand the devastating influences of ‘civilization.'” Sadly, the assessment of the early naturalists proved incorrect. By 1960, only 30 percent of the O`ahu `elepaio’s original habitat was still occupied. In 1975, the bird’s distribution had further declined to 14 percent of its original range, and by 1990, the O`ahu `elepaio was restricted to a total area of only 80 square miles, less than 8 percent of its original habitat. The O`ahu `elepaio is now known from only six geographically isolated populations in the Ko`olau and Wai`anae mountain ranges. Sightings of the O`ahu `elepaio have plummeted by 75 percent since 1960, and the most recent population estimate indicates that only about 200 to 500 birds remain.
“It is a great tragedy that we humans have taken the O`ahu `elepaio’s existence for granted,” said Karen Blue, Executive Director of CCH. “In just my short lifetime, we have pushed yet another of our few remaining Hawaiian native bird species to the brink of extinction,” Blue said.
Habitat loss and degradation have contributed to the O`ahu `elepaio’s decline and currently pose one of the primary threats to the bird’s continued existence. For example, the H-3 freeway — completed in 1997 — cut through Hälawa Valley, home to one of only six remaining populations of the bird. Suburban and golf course development also displaces habitat the O`ahu `elepaio needs. The bird currently occupies the upper slopes of Mäkua Valley in and adjacent to the Mäkua Military Reservation, where it is threatened by fires associated with live-fire training at the facility. A large part of the O`ahu `elepaio’s current range in the eastern Wai`anae Mountains occurs on Schofield Barracks Military Reservation, where live-fire training also threatens the bird and its habitat.
“The only way to reverse the O`ahu `elepaio’s precipitous slide towards extinction is to force the Service to comply promptly with the ESA’s mandatory deadlines,” explained Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney David Henkin. “Only then will this unique Hawaiian forest bird finally benefit from the significant protections that come with being listed as endangered,”
Once the Service lists the O`ahu `elepaio as endangered, both federal and state law would prohibit harassing, harming, or killing the bird, including habitat modification that significantly impairs the bird’s normal behavioral patterns such as breeding, feeding, or sheltering. A final listing rule would also designate critical habitat for the O`ahu `elepaio, to the maximum extent prudent and determinable. Finalizing the listing rule would require that all federal agencies — including the Army and federal Department of Transportation — ensure that their actions will not push the O`ahu `elepaio towards extinction in the wild or adversely modify habitat that is critical to the species’ continued survival and eventual recovery.
Native plants and animals, such as the O`ahu `elepaio, are irreplaceable components of Hawai’i’s unique cultural and natural heritage. The canoe makers of ancient times watched the movements of the `elepaio whenever a koa tree was cut down to make a canoe. If the bird pecked at the wood searching for insects, it was useless to work on that log because it would not prove seaworthy.