Today, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Sierra Club, Hawai’i Chapter and Hawai’i Audubon Society, plaintiffs in an on-going federal lawsuit filed in 1978, urged the Department of Land and Natural Resources (“DLNR”) to comply with existing court orders that require the permanent removal of all goats and sheep from the critical habitat of the highly endangered palila bird atop Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i. Sheep continue to ravage what is left of the palila’s habitat, and Hawai’i forest bird experts have warned the palila will be extinct in five years if action is not taken immediately to stop the palila population’s recent downward spiral.
“We filed this lawsuit back in 1978 because the State’s policy of keeping sheep and goats in the palila’s only remaining habitat was pushing the species to extinction,” said Jeffrey Mikulina, Director of the Sierra Club, Hawaiÿi Chapter. “Thirty years later, DLNR still has not fully complied with the court’s orders, and the palila population is rapidly shrinking, along with the size of their useable habitat.”
Statistics show that the palila population has plummeted 64% over the last five years, from an estimated 5,354 birds in 2003 to only 2,237 today. “DLNR initially took the court’s orders seriously and, in return, the palila population rebounded. But DLNR has gotten lax in recent years, and goats and sheep are allowed to wander into core critical habitat to browse at will,” said John Harrison, president of the Hawaiÿi Audubon Society. “The palila population is suffering for it,” he added.
The palila, one of the last remaining endemic Hawaiian honeycreepers, once inhabited native mamane-naio dry forest throughout Hawaiÿi Island. The palila depends primarily on seeds from mamane trees for food, supplemented by native caterpillars found only inside mamane pods. Mamane and naio trees also provide the palila with important nesting sites. “Palila thrive where a wide elevational range of healthy mamane trees supplies them with food year-round. This is why over 90% of them are on Mauna Kea’s south slope; there simply aren’t enough healthy trees for them anywhere else,” said Harrison.
Goats and sheep browse on mamane leaves, stems, seedlings, and sprouts, and in the process denude and stress trees, and most importantly, prevent the growth of young trees. “Goats and sheep have an enormous negative effect on native forests. Older trees will eventually die, whether due to stress from browsing or other causes. Without regeneration of healthy, young trees, that habitat is lost,” Mikulina said.
In 1979 and 1987, the Hawai’i federal district court ordered DLNR to remove all goats and sheep from the palila’s critical habitat to allow the mamane-naio forest to regenerate, prevent additional harm to palila, and promote the species’ recovery.
In 1998, DLNR agreed to use its best efforts to minimize migration of goats and sheep into palila critical habitat, including maintenance, repair, and upgrade of a fence built in the 1930s surrounding the palila critical habitat. “Despite its promise, and a subsequent court order, DLNR has never upgraded the 70-year old fence, and, to the best of our knowledge, hasn’t even done any maintenance since 2001. Mouflon can easily jump the fence and goats and sheep can, and do, walk in through the gaping holes,” said Earthjustice attorney Koalani Kaulukukui.
“The orders to remove goats and sheep are as relevant today as they were thirty years ago, because these animals are continuing to prevent mamane from becoming healthy trees, capable of supporting palila,” Harrison said. “No trees, no palila. It’s that simple.”
Sierra Club, Hawaiÿi Chapter and the Hawai’i Audubon Society have asked DLNR to commit to specific benchmarks and deadlines, including concrete dates by which DLNR will secure sufficient funding for mouflon-proof fencing in and around palila critical habitat and dates by which construction of mouflon-proof fencing will be completed. “DLNR needs to take the court’s orders seriously and prioritize the palila’s recovery. If it’s not willing to do that voluntarily, we’ll be back in court,” said Earthjustice’s Kaulukukui.