by Tom Lodge
Earthjustice Lawyers representing the Sierra Club and Hawai`i Audubon Society on July 31 charged that the State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is not obeying a federal court order to eradicate all sheep and goats from areas of Mauna Kea comprised of dry Mamane-Naio forest. The lawyers claim ongoing counts of the endangered Palila bird are falling because sheep and goats are harming habitat. They are demanding that all of fencing on Mauna Kea be repaired by October or they’ll sue again.
Their claims presume those actually studying the Palila which include the USGS Biological Resource Division, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the DLNR and others got the numbers right to start with. But many observers believe the numbers are questionable and the court ordered fence-and-eradicate plan has failed.
According to the Hawai`i Tribune-Herald August 1, Palila numbers estimated by the DLNR dropped from 5,354 birds in 2003, to an estimated 2,237 birds today, a “64% drop”. No one seems to question the numbers. Meanwhile thousands of acres are taken out of traditional public use.
Going from 5,324 birds to an “estimated” 2,237 birds today (3,117 birds) is a drop of 58%, not 64%. The Palila program has been a dismal failure and all the Sierra Club can do is blame sheep for it, which they have been relentlessly eradicating from the mountain. The latest demands deflect attention from the possibility that the Sierra Club and their entire support cast may have got it wrong for the last 30 years.
The core assumption behind the entire eradication program is that sheep were overgrazing Mauna Kea and this “necessarily” would harm the Palila, a pretty and noisy Mamane-seed-eater. So in 1980 when Palila numbers were about 3200 birds, the court-ordered eradication of feral sheep and goats began, with helicopter borne shooters slaughtering rams, ewes, and baby lambs. By 1981, the numbers of Palila rose to over 6,000, while the sheep slaughter continued. Earth Justice Lawyers and the Audubon want the public to believe that eradicating sheep made a big difference. But by 1982 the numbers of Palila had dropped again to about 3100 birds, and fell precipitously to 1300 birds in 1985.
The fluctuating numbers by themselves discount any linkage between any currently grazing sheep and Palila populations. With their concocted science not holding up, their new crisis and cry of alarm is that the birds could be extinct in 2013.
They want taxpayers to pay more and surrender the right to use more public lands. They are now demanding that the DLNR repair fencing around the entire mountain, 80% of which probably hasn’t seen a Palila for a hundred years. We need to take care of where the Palila are, not where the Sierra Club, Earth Justice, or most surprisingly the Audubon Society seem to think they can wish the Palila to be.
A 1986 federal court order in the same ongoing suit resulted in a decision to expand feral sheep eradications to include Mouflon sheep, yet Palila numbers continued to rise and fall. In 1990 the DLNR estimated about 5,000 birds but in 1992 they plunged to 1300 again. By 1995 Palila numbers grew to an estimated 3700, doubling their population in 3 years. In 1999, the Palila numbers soared to near 7,000--but what was it about the year 2000 that caused their numbers to plunge to 3,000? By 2002 they recovered again to 5,354 in number and predictably started a decline again to 2,237 in 2007.
Claims of impending extinction are strictly a sensational scare tactic used to promote symbolism over substance in order to generate grants and continued spending of our hard earned tax dollars and close off even more public use lands. Sheep eradication has failed at affecting Palila numbers—but it sure has killed a lot of sheep.
Sheep eradication has turned Mauna Kea into a weed patch, with alien grasses, German Ivy and who knows what else now competing with native Mamane and Naio trees. If no one had done anything, Palila populations would likely still be fluctuating up and down as they always have done.
Instead all they know is fence and eradicate. If they insist fence and eradicate it would be far wiser to fence only the area where Palila actually reside. Palila relocation efforts--moving birds to where the “scientists” thought they wanted to be--have a nearly 100% failure rate. Many relocated birds have died. Anybody else killing that many endangered birds would likely be in jail now.
The ongoing federal court suit (based upon these hypothetical claims of environmentalists) has driven actions for 30 years. These actions have failed to produce any kind of desirable result. The Palila have managed to average 3,200 birds for 27 years, exactly where they are today, exactly where they were in 1980. The repeated Doomsday cry of the environmentalists is becoming pitiable.
Tom Lodge is the President of the Hawai`i Hunting Association and may be reached at: email@example.com