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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 13, 2003

Invest now to better fight invasive species, state says

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The state's experts on aggressive alien plants and animals say they need more money, more lookouts at airports and harbors, and more legal authority to effectively deal with aggressive invaders such as the aquatic superweed Salvinia molesta, brown tree snakes and the fast-spreading Miconia calvescens plant.

More resources are sought to turn back invaders like the noisy coqui frog.

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Despite a concerted effort in recent years by different agencies to get a handle on invasive species, officials say there are huge holes in Hawai'i's ability to control invading species that threaten the state's agriculture industry, its native forests and waterways and even its back yards.

"Invasive-species funding is fairly new," said Mindy Wilkinson, invasive species coordinator with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife. "Even my position only became permanent in July."

Multiagency invasive-species committees have been formed within the past couple of years in each county, and the various agencies are forming networks and working groups.

The top officials say they need a thorough approach to deal with with invaders like the noisy coqui frog, the forest-choking banana poka vine and aggressive seaweeds that clog the reefs. And increasingly, they are recognizing that it's critically important to identify and intercept potential pests before they arrive.

"Part of the difficulty is whether we're going to respond after the fact or before the fact," said Julie Denslow, team leader of the U.S. Forest Service invasive-species unit in Hawai'i.

"Prevention is the cheapest method for protecting the environment," Wilkinson said.

The state has regulations aimed at preventing alien species from arriving, but they may not be sufficient or have enough manpower and money backing them up.

"There is already enforcement at the borders, but it needs to be stronger," said Lu Eldredge, a Bishop Museum invertebrate zoologist and member of the Aquatic Nuisance Species Steering Committee.

State botanist Vickie Caraway suggested that agricultural inspection for incoming passengers and their baggage be more effective.

"What infuriates me the most is to have our bags searched when we're going to California, but people from California don't go through the same thing," she said. "California cares a lot more over what's coming in than we do."

Once something does get in, the reaction needs to be fast and thorough. "The catchwords these days are 'early detection' and 'rapid response,' " Eldredge said.

But there are problems.

"One area where we're seriously lacking is detection," Wilkinson said. "How do you find new things that are being established? We need a systematic way of looking for things. We need to be like a fire department, identifying problems and dealing with them before they get out of control."

That means more staff and more finances so there are people and equipment ready to respond to newly established invaders. It costs money, but in the long run, it could save many times over in eradication and damage costs, she said.

Her boss, state forester Michael Buck, said the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources account for just 1.5 percent of the state's budget between them — not enough for the job at hand. Buck has said that the invasive species effort probably needs $50 million a year but that dozens of agencies involved in the effort may budget half of that.

"Hawai'i's current invasive species and control programs are not adequate," Buck said. "Major public health, economic and environmental impacts can be expected unless more fiscal and human resources are committed to the effort."

A statewide commitment is needed, involving other state departments whose authority touches on the issue, and involving the counties as well, he said.

"Once something reaches the proportion of salvinia, it's already very expensive to deal with it," Wilkinson said.

In other areas of invasive-species control, more legal clout is needed.

In the Legislature, both the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources are backing Senate Bill 553, which expands the Department of Agriculture's authority to aggressively attack pests and noxious weeds by no longer limiting the agency's response to only pests that threaten agriculture.

There are also legal issues involving the owners of private property that have invasive pests.

"We're working 100 percent with landowner permission," Wilkinson said. "This issue becomes more sticky if a landowner does not want (an alien invader) removed."

If a brown tree snake gets loose in Hawai'i, an animal control officer would not be able to chase it across private property without the owner's permission or a court order — either of which could delay the pursuit long enough for the snake to escape.

"I think the whole question of vertebrates needs to be looked at," said Larry Nakahara, manager of the state Department of Agriculture's Plant Pest Control Branch. "You cannot just go onto a person's property and kill what you think is a pest. You have to follow certain steps. You have to get a court order."

The federal government's brown tree snake authority, Mike Pitzler, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Branch, said it's his job to try to keep the snake from getting to Hawai'i. But once here, snake control is a state responsibility, and the state may not have sufficient legal tools.

"That has been an issue here," Pitzler said. "That is a concern."

In one measure aimed at making it more likely private landowners will allow invasive-species workers onto their property, Senate Bill 552, Senate Draft 1, provides landowners with liability protection if they allow government and volunteer teams onto their land to control and eradicate invasive species.

Wilkinson said more legal support may be appropriate for the most dangerous pests.

"For the most invasive species, like the brown tree snake or the red imported fire ant, there should be a method of declaring them pests and moving quickly," Wilkinson said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.