By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
The fate of the rarest remaining native Hawaiian forest birds red, green, yellow and black ones, one of them plumed with a gaudy crest is heading into federal court.
The Conservation Council for Hawaii, represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit yesterday asking that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service be ordered to respond to its request that the service designate critical habitat for 17 forest birds.
Critical habitat is an area scientists feel must be protected for the species to eventually be restored to healthy populations.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says it doesnt have the money to immediately complete the complex designation process, and some Hawaii land managers say thats not whats needed.
"This is overkill. It doesnt guarantee youre going to recover anything," said Michael Buck, head of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Much of the suggested critical habitat is within forest reserves, natural area reserves, private conservation reserves and private land zoned for conservation. Buck said no dramatic land use changes will threaten those habitats.
"I would suggest that a majority of bird habitat is already within protected areas. The limiting factors are biological, and require cooperation and funding. Increased regulatory overlays dont help the species," he said.
Earthjustice lawyer John Fritschie said critical habitat will help prevent actions especially on federally owned land or in projects with federal funding that could damage bird habitat.
"The courts have consistently held that critical habitat does play an important role in protecting the species," Fritschie said.
The 17 named forest birds are among the first creatures placed on the federal Endangered Species List. Theyve been on it since between 1967 and 1975.
Since that time, eight of them have declined to the point where they are considered possibly extinct. That means no one has seen one for years, but scientists still hold out hope that one or two could be surviving undiscovered, however unlikely that is.
Among those believed to have disappeared are the Kauai oo, a slate-colored bird with lemon-yellow thigh feathers used by early Hawaiians for feather cloaks. Also probably gone are the sweet-singing thrushes from Molokai and Kauai, the olomao and the kamao.
Among the survivors are the stunning crested honeycreeper, or akohekohe, and the hooded poouli, both from Maui.
Even the surviving birds are in serious straits. There may be only three individual poouli left in Maui forests. Others arent much better off, despite captive propagation programs on Maui and the Big Island.
Buck argues that those sorts of programs, which directly help the birds, ought to be the focus of recovery efforts.
Buck also said the state of Hawaii needs a public commitment to management of its native forested areas, which are habitats for endangered plants, birds, insects and other species. In this, he gains the support of a man normally critical of state government, Kauai conservationist Keith Robinson.
'Totally insufficient budget'
"The Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which manages the states vast land holdings, struggles endlessly on a totally insufficient budget," said Robinson, who has launched a personal effort to preserve species that are dying out on state lands.
The state has no monopoly on budget woes. The Fish and Wildlife Service office in Honolulu is already overwhelmed with court-ordered projects to establish critical habitats for endangered species, said service representative Barbara Maxfield.
"In fiscal year 2001, all our listing funds are tied up with 255 endangered plant species, four Hawaii invertebrates, the Oahu elepaio (a forest bird) and several Guam species," she said.
Fritschie said it shouldnt take much. Most of the work toward establishing critical habitat already has been done.
"All FWS now needs to do is publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register formally proposing as critical habitat those areas previously determined to be essential to the survival and recovery of these forest birds. Then the public, including biologists and other experts, will be able to provide input which FWS could use to finalize the designation," Fritschie said.
Maxfield said some of the agencys recovery plans are still a year or two away from completion.
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