Mauna Kea Wildfire Risk
by Tom Lodge, Hawaii Hunters Association
Mauna Kea a once majestic structure, the tallest mountain in the world, measured from its base at the bottom of the ocean, is now covered in weeds, vines, and a decided lack of life, and is a setting for a likely wildfire event.
But a recent 8-0 US Supreme Court ruling guts the legal authority underlying 90% of DLNR's Mauna Kea game control zone and points the way to save the mountain from conflagration.
Sheep have been on Mauna Kea since the 1790’s. Their numbers have risen to dramatic proportion on occasion, and in the late 1930’s the Territorial Foresters constructed a fence around Mauna Kea and then proceeded in “removing nearly 50,000 ‘feral’ sheep, goats and cattle from Mauna Kea during the 1930s and 1940s”.
After World War II, the combination of increased leisure time and expanded access allowed for more hunting opportunity for local hunters statewide. By 1950, the Territorial Government shifted management emphasis from eradication to management for sustained yield.
Territorial Forest managers closed Mauna Kea from 1950 to 1955 in order to increase population numbers. In 1957, Mouflon sheep were introduced to Hawaii Island and state biologists started a cross breeding program between our introduced “feral” sheep and the mouflon. Most if not all sheep on Mauna Kea today are believed to be of hybrid variety.
Game was "managed" as a natural resource until environmentalists, in the 1978 Constitutional Convention, removed those protections. The State was obligated to shift to a game "control" policy.
The Sierra Club, in 1979, sued on behalf of the Mauna Kea population of Palila birds. The finchlike Palila competes with sheep for the Mamane tree and some of the insects that frequent the Mamane.
A federal judge ordered the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources to stop maintaining and permanently remove any populations of feral sheep, goats and hybrid-mouflon sheep within Palila ‘critical’ habitat on Mauna Kea. Subsequent suits in 1987 and 1998 followed with the same purpose of removing sheep from Mauna Kea.
Well as we all know, the sheep lost and the Palila won!
Or did it?
These numbers may vary somewhat depending upon where you get your information from, but the bottom line is that we’ve averaged 3,000 birds from 1980 till approximately 2005, where the averages are now closer to 1,500 birds—in spite of massive DLNR eradication efforts.
The bird is in serious decline, but to emphasize eradication of sheep as the means to save Palila imperils the entire ecosystem.
It is interesting to note the correlation between sheep numbers and Palila densities: As the sheep went, so too did the Palila. As the sheep disappeared, the grasses, vines, and human-tall weeds were encouraged to overcome the mountain. The result: The fuel load increased. Without the sheep, human, dog, and wildlife have difficulty surviving in this deliberately degraded habitat. Fire is a death sentence to native forests that take years to recover. Sheep are the natural protectors of this environment and coexist with Palila.
* * * * *
The Hawaii Hunting Association has always promoted a cooperative game management approach to managing our wildlife and public lands. A start to this were the efforts of Tony Sylvestor, Terri Napeahi, Nani Pogline, Patrick Pacheco, along with other representatives of recreational users of our resources to create the County of Hawaii Game Management Advisory Commission, and their subsequent efforts in creating a State of Hawaii Game Management Advisory Commission.
This is a difference between conservationists and environmentalist interest. Conservation means wise use of our resources. Environmentalism focuses on the singular result: get rid of the sheep.
There is a vast difference between Palila ‘core’ habitat, and what is assigned as Palila ‘critical’ habitat. ‘Core’ habitat is based upon biology—the actual presence of Palila birds. ‘Critical’ habitat is based upon ideology--lines drawn on a map with neither input nor credible purpose other than to expand their influence.
For example, during the Saddle Road realignment, the State was required to set aside roughly 10,000 acres for Mamane/Naio forest enhancement in exchange for allowing the Saddle Road to traverse several hundred acres of ‘critical’ habitat that hadn’t seen a Palila for 50 years--as noted, in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement developed for Saddle Road Realignment.
The unanimous US Supreme Court, November 27, 2018 (Weyerhauser v US Fish and Wildlife Service), has finally defined rules for Critical Habitat. For habitat to be ‘critical’, the species in question now has to actually reside in that habitat. This ruling denies the current rationale for game control on 90% of Mauna Kea.
* * * * *
Game Control is action taken within a Game Management Ares (GMA) to limit a specified animal population, designated by law or by rule for hunting (HRS §183D), to a desired level—which can include ‘zero’.
Game Management is a program that promotes sustainable animal populations supportable by the carrying capacity of available habitat.
With the exception of game bird management, DLNR practices game control in Hawaii. There is no plan for long term sustainability of our game animals in spite of the 2016 legislature unanimously passing HCR22, imploring DLNR to practice appropriate management strategies towards utilizing our game animals as a “Sustainability Resource.”
DLNR engages in crisis management--just about everything that they do is in response, not in preparation. Game Management requires preparation.
Now we have a wildfire crisis and a Supreme Court ruling. Will DLNR finally hear the message from the 2016 Legislature?
UPDATE -- Responses provided by the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife to Questions from Hawai’i Free Press:
Q: How is DLNR changing its management off "critical' habitat areas (as opposed to 'core' habitat areas) statewide in light of the US Supreme Court ruling in Weyerhauser v US FWS? (See link below)
A: We have not looked at the Weyerhouser ruling. As such, we have not modified our management in response.
Q: More specifically, how does this court ruling affect DLNR management of Palila habitat (core and critical) on Mauna Kea?
A: This ruling has not tricked down to us.
Q: Does the Department believe ungulate eradication programs can still be justified in 'critical' habitat areas where Palila have not been found?
A: We are under court order to eradicate sheep on Mauna Kea, and are working toward that goal.