Suit Filed to Protect Endangered Palila Bird in Hawai'i

State's violation of three court orders contributes to drastic decline


Koalani Kaulukukui, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
John Harrison, Hawai`i Audubon Society, (808) 528-1432

The Hawai`i State Department of Land and Natural Resources has failed to fully comply with three federal court orders issued to stop the state’s illegal "take" of the critically endangered palila bird on the Island of Hawai`i, according to legal papers filed today by Earthjustice, on behalf of the Sierra Club, Hawai`i Chapter, Hawai`i Audubon Society, and National Audubon Society. The court’s orders, which date back thirty years, require the state to remove feral goats and sheep and mouflon sheep from the palila’s critical habitat atop Mauna Kea and keep them out.

The court issued the orders in 1979, 1987, and 1998, after it found the state in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act for unlawfully harming the palila by maintaining the destructive animals in the federally listed bird’s last-remaining habitat, despite the state’s knowledge that the sheep and goats destroy the native mamane and naio trees on which the palila depend to survive.

"The state is not taking effective action to keep the sheep out of the palila’s critical habitat, and the palila population is suffering for it," said John Harrison, president of the Hawai`i Audubon Society. Between 2003 and 2008, the palila population plummeted more than 60 percent, from an estimated 6,600 in 2003 to between 2,200 and 2,600 birds in 2008. "Palila are on a crash-course toward extinction in large part because browsing animals are allowed to continue to destroy their only habitat," said Harrison.

Statistics suggest that the sheep population is growing in the palila’s habitat, even though hunters have virtually unlimited access to the critical habitat area to hunt sheep  and state officials carry out periodic aerial hunts. Sheep are accessing the forest from surrounding lands, because the state has allowed a 55-mile fence surrounding the forest to fall into disrepair. Because aerial hunting can only be done within the critical habitat, sheep have also learned to elude aerial hunters when they hear helicopters approaching by leaving the critical habitat through holes in the fence.    

Mamane Trees, Key to Palila Survival

Palila birds depend on native mamane trees for nesting sites, and their diet consists almost exclusively of mamane foods, including mamane seeds and native caterpillars found only in mamane seedpods. Studies show that when mamane seedpods are scarce, palila lay fewer eggs and their overall survival rates decrease dramatically.

Like the palila, the sheep on Mauna Kea prefer a mamane diet. Browsing sheep eat away the lower branches of mature mamane trees, removing some of the palila’s food resources. But the biggest problem is that the sheep destroy young mamane trees entirely, preventing regeneration of the forest. As older trees die off with no young ones to replace them, the forest disappears.

Mauna Kea’s shrinking mamane forest has profoundly affected the palila.  A recent federal report on the state of the nation’s birds singled out Hawai`i’s birds as the most imperiled in the country, calling the palila a prime example. (Read the report)

"The state is not allowed, under federal law, to contribute to the palila’s extinction," said Earthjustice attorney Koalani Kaulukukui. "Along with increasing the effectiveness of sheep hunts, the state must replace the 70 year-old fence to keep the sheep out. The state has known since 1979 that it needs an adequate fence to comply with the court’s orders but remains in violation of the law."

The environmental groups asked the court to order the state to construct a mouflon-proof fence around the palila’s critical habitat no later than June 1, 2011.

Read the motion to enforce (PDF) 

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