The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service plans to finalize a proposal within the next few months for designating 19,000 acres of critical habitat in North Kona.
But federal and state officials plan to work together to examine state lands that are already under protection in the area. The collaboration could reduce the area likely to be placed under the new federal designation between Palani Road and Waikoloa, which is broken up into chunks through the region to protect three rare plant species.
“We are looking to find a smaller footprint to work with,” said Loyal Mehrhoff, field supervisor for the Pacific Islands Fish & Wildlife Office.
“We’re also working with private landowners to make sure they are doing conservation,” he said.
Once the FWS finishes preparing a proposal, it will go up the chain of command to offices in Portland, Oregon and Washington D.C., where officials make the final decision, Mehrhoff said.
“I think the important thing is that we are going to find a way to look more carefully at (integrating) existing state lands that are closed,” said William Aila, Chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The discussions came as Aila and Division of Forestry and Wildlife Administrator Lisa Hadway met with a group of Big Island hunters and lawmakers on Saturday. Hunters expressed concerns over shrinking hunting areas, and Native Hawaiians called on DLNR to turn over management of the aina to the people who have historically drawn subsistence from it.
State Rep. Richard Onishi, D-Hilo, Keaau, said there doesn’t appear to have been much involvement by state officials or residents in the federal listing processes. Hunters asked if there was a way to engage the public more in considering additions to the Endangered Species List.
Mehrhoff said the ESA is an emergency trigger that kicks in because the status quo hasn’t worked to keep species away from the brink.
“If you wanted engagement, that should have happened a long time ago before these species were down to a level of extinction,” he said.
In response to hunter apprehension about continued access to state lands, Aila acknowledged that concerns are real. Hunting opportunities have been reduced on both federal and state lands and by private landholders fearing liability, he said.
“I hear them,” Aila said of the hunters. “When I had more time, I used to hunt. It’s not just a hobby; it’s who they are and where they come from.”
Hadway said that hunting will remain among the various uses of the state’s lands, but that access will not be allowed in all areas. Aila said his agency will work with the hunting community to find common ground.
The Big Island has 662,000 of the 900,000 acres of state land that are open to hunting.
Those acres could shrink in coming years. DOFAW plans to protect rare and endangered species in the coming two decades by fencing feral animals out of 22 percent of Big Island lands overseen by DOFAW. Currently, only about 3.5 percent of those lands are fenced, Hadway said in an interview.
But Hadway holds that there is acreage enough to accommodate hunters and rare species at the same time. The agency will also work to identify other hunting opportunities on state and private lands, she said.
“It will take creatively working together,” Hadway said.
Mehrhoff said the endemic iiwi, one of Hawaii’s signature scarlet upland birds, is also being considered for the Endangered Species List. A mainland conservation group petitioning for the listing of the bird cited climate change in altering critical bird habitat, Mehrhoff said. The agency will consider the petition in a year’s time, he said.
Puna Rep. Faye Hanohano called on officials to balance protections of plants and animals with the rights of Native Hawaiians to engage in traditional practices.
“You are delisting the Hawaiian people,” said Lima Tamasese. “There should be some common sense in the survival of humans…The ocean is getting locked up. If you don’t consider a group of people who eat a certain kind of food, you’re not doing your job.”