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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 9, 2003

Saddle Road upgrade may give new wings to endangered palila

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

A native palila in a mamane tree on Mauna Kea. The endangered bird feeds primariy on the green seed pods of the tree.

Jack Jeffrey • Special to The Honolulu Advertiser

HILO, Hawai'i — A federal plan to improve the narrow, winding Saddle Road that cuts through the heart of the Big Island is offering new hope for the endangered palila bird.

For years, environmentalists pressed the state to clear cattle and wild sheep off the honeycreepers' remaining habitat and to establish bird populations in new areas to give the palila a better shot at survival.

But lands on Mauna Kea that were designated in 1977 as critical habitat for the yellow-and-gray-colored bird aren't fenced to keep the sheep out, and some areas are still leased to ranchers for grazing.

Almost all of the palila populations are concentrated in a small area on the western slopes of Mauna Kea, and scientists worry that one large wildfire could push the palila into extinction.

Now as part of a $15 million recovery program to offset loss of habitat from the Saddle Road project, the U.S. Department of Transportation will remove cattle and sheep from nearly 10,000 acres of state and federal land, install fencing and undertake fire prevention measures in an effort to transplant the birds to habitat that they abandoned long ago.

"It won't take us all the way to full-blown recovery, but it will definitely give us a good push," said Paul Banko, an expert on palila with the U.S. Geological Survey's Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center. "We're very excited to have, for once, an opportunity to actually commit serious resources to conservation. Usually, it comes in very small bundles."

Scientists estimate there are about 5,300 palila left on Mauna Kea, based on inexact counts determined by listening for the birds' song. That's an increase from counts as low as 1,600 in 1980, and scientists believe the bird population has stabilized.

The palila feeds on caterpillars and the flowers and seeds of mamane trees. The bird, listed as an endangered species in 1967, is thought to exist on less than 10 percent of its original habitat because of the deterioration of native forests as a result of grazing animals.

Protection efforts have been controversial over the years. Big Island hunters, in particular, questioned a program to exterminate mouflon sheep to protect the palila habitat.

Environmentalists sued under the Endangered Species Act, and in 1979 and 1987 a federal court ordered the state to wipe out sheep and goat populations on Mauna Kea.

The state spends about $10,000 a year shooting sheep from helicopters, but Miles Nakahara, wildlife biologist for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, estimated there are still about 200 of them on the mountain.

Banko said it is not uncommon to spot herds of 20 to 40 animals.

Rick Warshauer, conservation biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said evidence of damage to indigenous plants from grazing and trampling suggests the sheep are expanding their reach around the volcano.

Nakahara and hunting advocate Matt Hoeflinger doubt that, and said there are signs the mamane forest is recovering.

Rather than shooting sheep, Hoeflinger, who has hunted in Hawai'i for 20 years, contends it would be wiser to build a sturdy fence to keep them out of the palila habitat.

The rebuilding of the Saddle Road calls for a new alignment that cuts into 120 acres on the south slope of Mauna Kea designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as palila critical habitat, said Reggie David, consultant to the Federal Highways Administration.

David said palila have not been seen there for more than 25 years, but transportation officials struck a deal with the service to offset the loss of habitat by managing three other large parcels to benefit the endangered bird.

All of those parcels will be cleared of cattle and sheep, with 25 miles of fencing installed to help the native forest recover, David said.

The new areas set aside include about 1,500 acres of state land on the west slope of Mauna Kea now leased to Parker Ranch for cattle grazing. That land is classified as federal critical habitat for the palila, and has birds living there, David said.

Also included are 3,000 acres at Kipuka 'Alala near the southern edge of the Pohakuloa Training Area, and 5,000 acres on the north slope of Mauna Kea, where there are no palila, David said.

Once the forest on the northern slope recovers, experts will attempt to move birds there to start a new colony. So far, they have had little luck in getting the birds to establish new populations.

A firebreak along portions of the Saddle Road at the training area will help protect the birds from fire hazards, and federal officials also will launch studies of fire risks and ways to control feral cats and other predators.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.