Suit Seeks Protections for 17 Hawaiian Forest Birds

By Cat Lazaroff

HONOLULU, Hawaii, January 9, 2001 (ENS) - The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund has filed suit in on behalf of Conservation Council for Hawaii (CCH) seeking the designation of critical habitat for 17 species of imperiled Hawaiian forest birds. Some of the brightly colored birds have been declining since the first humans landed in the Hawaiian islands.

The suit, filed last week in federal court, seeks to compel Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director Jamie Rappaport Clark to take action on CCH's 1992 petition to designate critical habitat for the birds.

crested honeycreeper

There are believed to be about 3,800 `Äkohekohe, or crested honeycreepers, living in the wild on the Hawaiian island of Maui (All photos courtesy Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund)
The 17 forest birds on the islands of Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Hawaii were listed as endangered between 1967 and 1975. Some of these species may have already gone extinct, and all of them remain in peril from low population numbers and habitat loss.

"We are dismayed that these birds continue to be lost, contributing to Hawaii's dubious distinction of being the extinction capital of the world," said Karen Blue, executive director of CCH, the Hawaii affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. "The USFWS warned in 1982 that 'immediate and heroic' efforts to save these species were needed. While for some it may already be too late, for those that remain, critical habitat designation is a vital legal protection to which these species are entitled."

CCH wants the agency to formally propose as critical habitat those areas determined to be essential to the survival and recovery of the birds.

Habitat for the forest birds has been changing since the first Polynesians arrived on the Hawaiian islands. These early settlers cleared land to grow crops such as bananas, sweet potatoes and taro root, none of which are native to the islands.


The Hawaiian `Äkepa and other forest birds have not adapted well to habitats altered by human beings
Hawaii's original settlers killed the native birds to use their brightly colored feathers in ceremonial clothing such as leis, capes and cloaks. Animals introduced by the Polynesians, including rats, pigs and dogs, hunted the birds and ate their eggs, and other nonnative species competed with the forest birds for food and habitat.

Later arrivals, including Europeans and Asians, brought other problems, such as malaria carrying mosquitoes and predatory snakes. Hundreds of Hawaiian birds have already gone extinct due to human colonization of the islands, and many others hover on the brink.

Critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act protects areas essential to a species' conservation and recovery from being destroyed or adversely modified by federal agency actions, including actions taken by private parties which require federal permits. The USFWS is required under its own regulations to "promptly" take action on petitions to designate critical habitat.

Between 1982 and 1984, the USFWS developed four recovery plans covering these 17 species of endangered Hawaiian forest birds, describing the status, conservation needs and "essential" or "critical" habitat for these species.

Since all the work necessary to identify critical habitat is already done, the lawsuit seeks to compel the agency to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register formally proposing critical habitat areas. A formal proposal would be subject to public input before being finalized.


The `Akiapölä`au, native to the island of Hawaii, is at risk from ongoing habitat destruction
"There is no excuse for USFWS's refusal to take the simple, but vital, step of immediately issuing a proposed rule to designate critical habitat for these forest birds, and allow the public the opportunity to comment," said Earthjustice attorney John Fritschie. "If USFWS delays an answer on the petition much longer, the only possible response for most of the species soon will be that it is too late because none are left."

The 17 birds covered by the suit include: