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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 13, 2005

USDA denies grant to fight coqui

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

In a blow to Hawai'i's war on coqui frogs, officials have learned that an application for nearly $9 million in federal money for frog control has been turned down.

Efforts to eradicate the coqui frog were dealt a setback when the USDA refused the state's request for a $9 million grant.

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Officials were hoping the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant would underwrite the lion's share of a three-year eradication effort against the tiny frog on the Big Island, where the noisy Caribbean imports have invaded neighborhoods in growing numbers. The coqui may be small — about the size of a quarter — but its mating call is known to reach 90 to 100 decibels, and scientists fear it is competing with native birds for insect prey.

"It is a disappointment," said Mindy Wilkinson, state invasive species coordinator. "We are definitely stuck with the frogs unless new tools and strategies emerge."

The state Senate yesterday voted for a plan to provide funding for the eradication of coqui, but Wilkinson said it is unlikely the amount will match what would have come in from the USDA grant. The next stop for the bill will be a conference committee where lawmakers will work out their differences on the details of the plan, including the amount of money to be provided to each county.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is supporting a different bill that would provide $1 million for the $4 million budget of the Hawai'i Invasive Species Council, which is working on prevention and rapid-response capabilities for a variety of alien invaders.

Invasive species officials are planning to meet on the Big Island next month to discuss coqui priorities and map out a less-ambitious control strategy in light of the loss of federal funding.

The fight against the coqui continues on other islands, only it doesn't appear to be quite so daunting.

On Kaua'i, only one population of frogs exists, on private property at Lawa'i. The property owner is cooperative and eradication efforts are in the works, Wilkinson said.

On O'ahu, a population at Wahiawa is under control, but frogs have been spreading throughout a handful of plant nurseries, from the North Shore to Waimanalo.

On Maui, the coqui continues to persist at lush coastal resorts and nursery outlets. But the worst infestation is in Maliko Gulch, a steep, densely vegetated valley where the frogs are found in an area of several miles.

Wilkinson said that while eradication remains a realistic goal for O'ahu and Kaua'i, it's unlikely for Maui because of the Maliko infestation.

On the Big Island, the frogs continue to spread at an alarming rate.

"People on the Big Island have simply stopped calling in to report them," said Christy Martin of the Hawai'i Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species. "It's incredibly bad."

At last count, there were 270 coqui populations on the Big Island, but Wilkinson said officials last year ceased counting because the various populations were growing so large they were beginning to merge.

In addition, the frogs are popping up in new areas where one wouldn't expect them to be. There's no other explanation for a new population in the isolated Manuka Natural Area Reserve, for example, except that people must be deliberately moving them there, Wilkinson said.

Last year, Hawai'i County Mayor Harry Kim declared a civil state of emergency, based on the level of coqui frog infestation, in an effort to persuade USDA officials that federal money was needed to battle the problem.

On other coqui battlefronts, officials continue to seek federal permission to use hydrated lime as an additional control substance in the field. Citric acid continues to be the primary weapon.

A hot-wash technique for nursery plants developed by University of Hawai'i researchers Arnold Hara and Marcel Tsang continues to show promise as another weapon against coqui in the nursery trade. The hot water kills the frogs and other pests while leaving most nursery plants unharmed.

A portable version of the hot-wash machine is being developed for more widespread use, including for the possible screening plants at ports of entry, officials said.

Hara is conducting an experiment at Lava Tree State Park on the Big Island using PVC pipes to trap frogs. The pipes provide attractive nesting for the coqui, which lay their eggs inside. So far, about a third of the 100 traps set in a 4,000-square-foot area since January have attracted frogs, and Hara believes the trapping efficiency can be increased.

"I'm excited about it," he said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.