Ecosystem Approach to Hawaii Wildlife Welcome But Not New

HONOLULU, Hawaii, October 5. 2008 (ENS) – Conservationists are expressing mixed reactions to the federal government’s proposal to add 48 species found only on the island of Kauai to the federal endangered species list and also to designate critical habitat for them. While advocates support the ecosystem approach proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, some say it was used during the Clinton administration but abandoned under President Bush.

The proposal, made on Tuesday by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne includes 45 plants, two Kauai birds – the ‘akikiki and ‘akeke’e – and one Hawaiian picture-wing fly.

Kempthorne said the proposal applies “a newly developed, ecosystem-based approach to species conservation.”

“By addressing the common threats that occur across these ecosystems, we can more effectively focus our conservation efforts on restoring the functions of these shared habitats,” said Kempthorne. “This holistic approach will benefit the recovery of the listed species and also all the species within the native ecological community.”

The akeke’e uses its offset bill to pry open
leaves and flower buds of just one tree,
the Åhi‘a. (Photo by Eric
VanderWerf courtesy American
Bird Conservancy)

The species are found in six ecosystem types from rainforest mountains to moist lowlands and dry cliffs. Twenty-two separate geographic areas covering 27,674 acres are being proposed as critical habitat.

But only 1,646 acres are proposed as new critical habitat. The Service says 26,028 acres overlap existing critical habitat set aside for other species.

The majority of the proposed critical habitat is located on State of Hawaii lands, while 5,970 acres are located on private lands owned by approximately 12 different landowners.

Some conservationists say the proposal holds promise for species protection.

“We are pleased about the ecosystem approach – it makes sense. It looks like for the first time they’re combining plants and animals, and taking an ecosystem approach toward recovery,” said Marjorie Ziegler, who heads the 58 year-old Honolulu-based Conservation Council for Hawaii.

“Kauai is really hammered,” Ziegler said. “We’re really glad they’re listing the two birds. They are being pushed up to the upper elevations of the Alakai Swamp and if they don’t get protection from pigs, we’re going to lose them very quickly.”

But Mike Senatore, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, takes issue with Kempthorne’s assertion that the ecosystem approach is new.

“It was the Clinton administration that developed and implemented an ecosystem-based approach to species conservation – an approach that the Bush administration all but disregarded,” he said.

“Most, if not all of these species, have been the subject of listing petitions and ongoing litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity to force the administration to protect hundreds of species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service previously had determined warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Senatore.

Other conservation organizations also have been requesting protection for the rare birds.

The American Bird Conservancy and Hawaiian bird expert Eric VanderWerf had petitioned the agency requesting protection for them. There are estimated to be fewer than 1,400 ‘akikiki and fewer than 3,500 ‘akeke’e in 2007. The populations of both birds dropped drastically since 2000, the group says.

George Fenwick, president of the bird conservation group, called the listing proposal “an important victory for the ‘akikiki and ‘akeke’e, which need every bit of help that they can get.”

The akikiki lives only on the high, wet
slopes of Kauai’s highest mountain.
(Photo by Eric VanderWerf courtesy
American Bird Conservancy)

“Recent population surveys indicate that these species are on the brink of extinction,” he said.

The ‘akikiki is categorized as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to its extremely small and declining population and geographic range.

The ‘akeke’e is categorized as Endangered by the IUCN due to its small and declining geographic range and declines in habitat quality.

Patrick Leonard, field supervisor with the Pacific Islands office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that over the next few years, the Service plans to use the ecosystem approach to propose listing and designating critical habitat for all of the endemic candidate species from the Hawaiian Islands.

There will be one rule each for Oahu and the Big Island of Hawaii and a single rule for the three islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

The Service will also propose a single rule for Hawaiian species that are found on multiple islands. Each rule will propose endangered or threatened status for each species and will also propose critical habitat for species “when prudent,” said Leonard.

“Kauai, the oldest island of the main Hawaiian Islands, has been called a ‘treasure trove of biodiversity’ and is believed to house the greatest diversity of plants in the state,” said “Therefore, it is appropriate that we begin this new approach to listing species and designating critical habitat in Kauai.”

All of the Kauai species are threatened by ongoing destruction or modification of habitat due to feral ungulates such as pigs and goats, nonnative plants and hurricanes.

Several Kauai species are threatened by destruction or modification of habitat due to fire, landslides and flooding.

In addition to the threats to their habitat, one or more of the 48 species are threatened by limited numbers, predation, competition from nonnative plants, lack of reproduction, avian diseases, vandalism and over collection.

Senatore says the proposal to protect the 48 species falls short of the Interior Department’s announcement earlier this year that it would propose adding 71 species to the list of endangered and threatened species.

“While we welcome this action to protect these incredibly rare and imperiled species, in no way does it make up for the administration’s abysmal track-record of listing and protecting endangered and threatened species,” said Senatore. “This action also does nothing for the hundreds of additional species that have languished for years awaiting protection under the Endangered Species Act.”

Hawaii leads the nation in the total number of endangered and threatened species with 329, and in extinctions – with over 1,000 plants and animals having disappeared since human colonization.

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