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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 23, 2003

Tiny bug may affect astronomy plans

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

Environmentalists are going to bat for the tiny wekiu, a bug found only above 11,000 feet on Mauna Kea.

William P. Mull • Special to The Advertiser

Environmentalists filed a petition yesterday to place the wekiu bug that lives atop Mauna Kea on the federal endangered species list, which could impede astronomy projects proposed for the mountain.

The filing by the group Kahea, a nonprofit organization of Native Hawaiian and environmental activists, also asks the U.S. Department of the Interior to designate the Mauna Kea summit area above the 11,700-foot elevation as critical habitat for the wekiu.

That designation would require any project with federal involvement to undergo scrutiny by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent harm to the habitat of the insects, which are only a quarter-inch long and have been a candidate for endangered species status since 1999.

Federal officials have up to a year from the filing of the petition to decide whether the wekiu should be added to endangered species list, and another year to actually file the federal rule adding the bug to the list, said Barbara Maxfield of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Islands office.

Astronomers have ambitious plans to build more telescopes on the 13,796-foot mountain, but Cha Smith, executive director of Kahea, said construction on Mauna Kea already is "over the sustainable amount."

"Unless protective measures are taken, it is unlikely that the bug or its habitat will survive unabated telescope construction and associated industry activity on the mountain," Smith said.

Mauna Kea, or "White Mountain" in Hawaiian, was developed for astronomy starting in the 1960s. There are 13 observatories there.

A number of the astronomy installations on Mauna Kea have federal financing from agencies such as NASA.

Environmentalists contend the mountain is a unique habitat for a number of creatures including the wekiu, whose scientific name is Nysius wekiuicola. The insect lives in the volcanic cinders and uses the summit's frigid environment to its advantage, feeding on dead bugs that are preserved in the snow or immobilized by the cold after they are blown upslope.

The wekiu is found only on Mauna Kea, and is so rare that Bishop Museum scientists were able to spot or trap only about 50 of the bugs during a three-month search last year, according to the petition. The petition says about 62 acres of wekiu habitat have been lost to construction of astronomy facilities so far.

Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy, predicted that designating the wekiu as an endangered species would have little effect on telescope construction because planning for projects already includes extensive efforts to protect the insect.

He said scientists on the mountain treat the bug as if it were an endangered species.

For example, Kudritzki said, a proposed project to add up to six "outrigger" telescopes to the W.M. Keck Observatory includes a plan for restoring some habitat for the wekiu in hopes the insect will repopulate the area.

The telescope project is opposed by some environmentalists and Native Hawaiians who contend there are too many astronomy facilities on the mountain, which is considered sacred by Hawaiians.

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