Hawaii continues to stand-by as sheep destroy critically-endangered palila bird's habitat

Jeremy Hance
March 25, 2009

The environmental legal organization, Earthjustice, has filed legal papers against the Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources for failing to keep feral sheep and goats out of the critically-endangered palila bird's last habitat. According to Earthjustice, the court has already issued three orders beginning in 1979 that found the state of Hawaii in violation of the Endangered Species Act by not protecting the palila bird from the destructive feeding practices of sheep and goats.

The palila birds and the feral sheep and goats are currently in competition for native mämane trees. The palila birds nest in these trees and feed on their seeds and native caterpillars found only in their seedpods. The sheep also feed on mämane trees, consuming some of the food sources that the critically-endangered palila bird depend on. But even more worrisome to conservationists, the sheep have a tendency to kill young mämane trees, destroying in the long-term the final habitat for palila birds.

Critically-endangered palila bird on a mämane tree. Photo by: USGS.
“The state is not taking effective action to keep the sheep out of the palila’s critical habitat, and the palila population is suffering for it,” said John Harrison, president of the Hawaii Audubon Society. “Palila are on a crash-course toward extinction in large part because browsing animals are allowed to continue to destroy their only habitat.”

In five years, the palila population has dropped more than 60 percent, from 6,600 individuals in 2003 to 2,600 in 2008.

Earthjustice is asking the Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources to construct a fence by 2011 that would keep sheep and goats out, in addition to increase the effectiveness of sheep hunting that already occurs in the habitat. Earthjustice filed the papers on behalf of the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Hawaii Audubon Society, and the National Audubon Society.

According to a recent report on bird populations in America, Hawaii was identified as the state experiencing the most dire bird crisis: 31 bird species are currently endangered in Hawaii. Out of 13 birds that are considered possibly extinct in the US, nine of them are from Hawaii.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (March 25, 2009).

Hawaii continues to stand-by as sheep destroy critically-endangered palila bird's habitat.