2 birds, 45 plants, 1 insect on Kauai make endangered list
By Diana Leone
Advertiser Staff Writer
LIHU'E, Kaua'i — The announcement yesterday that Kaua'i will have 45 more plants, one insect and two birds on the U.S. endangered species list was hailed by conservation workers as the right thing to do.
"It's formally acknowledging what those of us that work with native flora are already know — that there are a large number of native species that are really imperiled. They need help," said Chipper Wichman, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which has its headquarters and three of its five gardens on Kaua'i.
The two bird species — the 'akeke'e and the 'akikiki — are both honeycreepers that live only on Kaua'i and have seen large drops in wild populations.
The 45 plants include ferns, vines, shrubs and trees found nowhere else in the world, including a rare plant so at risk to unscrupulous collectors that officials won't reveal where it can be found in the wild.
The one insect is a member of the picture-wing fly family, which has 12 other species on the endangered list.
"This is huge environmentally for Hawai'i, in our opinion," said George Wallace, an American Bird Conservancy vice president. The organization, along with Hawai'i bird expert Eric VanderWerf, had petitioned the Fish & Wildlife service to name the birds as endangered several years ago.
"Hawai'i has seen an awful lot of species go extinct," Wallace said. "We refer to it as the extinction capital of world for birds. This is a step being taken to really completely reverse this situation."
The listings will be official in a few weeks when they're published in the Federal Register, said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency spokes-man Ken Foote.
Kaua'i was chosen as the first of the Hawaiian Islands to have multiple endangered species grouped for listing and action under a new U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ecosystem-based model because it has the largest number of imperiled species that exist on only one island, Foote said.
Similar ecosystem-based plans will be unfurled for O'ahu later this year for 23 species, Foote said. Adding species for Maui County's four islands and the Big Island will follow.
"By highlighting species that share ecosystems and common threats, we can more effectively focus conservation management efforts to address these threats and restore ecosystem function," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in yesterday's announcement of the Kaua'i listings.
Techniques that may help the species as a group include removing invasive weeds and feral goat and pig populations that can push out the native species.
A total of 26,582 acres in six ecosystem types are being designated as critical habitat for the newly endangered species, an agency term that refers to lands they need to survive. Of the total acreage, 98 percent overlaps with areas already designated critical habitat for other species.
The overlapping turfs are part of why officials are saying the ecosystem management model will be more efficient for helping the distressed creatures.
The 'akeke'e, or Kaua'i 'ākepa, and 'akikiki, or Kaua'i creeper, were both considered common into the early 1960s. But the 'akeke'e declined to an estimated 8,000 birds in 2000 and to 3,500 birds by 2007.
The even more imperiled 'akikiki declined to just 1,300 birds in 2007, an 80 percent drop in 40 years.
The American Bird Conservancy's Wallace called the endangered status of the two rare birds "long overdue and very welcome."
The endangered designation doesn't bring funding with it automatically, Foote said.
But it can help nonprofit, private conservation groups, such as the National Tropical Botanical Garden, more effectively seek grants, Wichman said. Asking for help to enhance an ecosystem with endangered species "gives credibility and I think will eventually leverage additional support from the government," he said.
As part of the botanical garden's conservation mission, it grows endangered plants in an effort to preserve them against total disappearance — and to help replenish wild populations when possible. Among endangered plants growing at the gardens already are 13 of the 45 just named species — and 99 of the endangered species found on Kaua'i, Wichman said.
"With some help, these plants can succeed. They don't need to go into extinction," Wichman said.
He cautioned that just moving the endangered plants to a sheltered environment is only an interim solution. The ultimate goal, he said, is their survival in the wild.