A U.S. District Court in Honolulu ruled Monday Hawaii County’s aerial hunting ban cannot overrule the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ federal mandate to reduce grazing animals in palila habitat on Mauna Kea.
Hawaii County enacted the ordinance banning aerial hunting in 2012, prompting DLNR to end the aerial hunts of feral goats, sheep and cattle on Mauna Kea in the palila habitat. In February, officials with several environmental protection groups learned DLNR had ended the hunts, which were required in a 1998 stipulated order as part of the state’s responsibility to protect the endangered native bird species.
DLNR last month requested an expedited hearing before the U.S. District Court, seeking guidance as to whether DLNR employees or its contractors could be prosecuted by Hawaii County officials for conducting the aerial hunts.
“In short, so long as (DLNR), or their duly-appointed agents, are acting to enforce the specific terms of the 1998 Stipulated Order, they may conduct an aerial sighting over the Palila’s critical habitat and shoot any ungulates sighted without fear of violating (the Hawaii County ordinance),” Judge J. Michael Seabright wrote.
Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida said County Council members were advised, before they passed the ordinance, that this could happen.
“I don’t think it took anybody by surprise,” Ashida said.
He saw some positive news in the ruling, in how specific it was in relating the ruling to the 1998 order only.
“The court did not invalidate the entire ordinance,” he said, adding that meant rumored, recent aerial hunts near Kawaihae Road and on Hualalai would remain illegal.
Tony Sylvester, chairman of the Hawaii County Game Management Advisory Commission, said he was pleased to learn the judge applied his ruling only to the hunts required by the palila protection order.
“It’s kind of a compromise for us,” Sylvester said, adding since 2008, DLNR had conducted four hunts annually, twice the amount required by the 1998 order. “They were getting more and more aggressive. It was an abuse of power already.”
Aerial hunting is a hot topic on Hawaii Island. Environmentalists argue the ungulates are so damaging to native plants — and the plants that house native, endangered bird species — that benefits of using helicopters for aerial eradication outweigh the negative consequences hunters report. In particular, hunters often cite concerns about the dwindling ungulate population in areas open for hunting, as well as decreasing hunting areas. Hunters also call the aerial hunts wasteful, because the sheep, goat and cattle carcasses are generally left to rot, even though hunters say they would be willing to hike into remote areas to retrieve the meat.
Since 1979, courts have ordered the DLNR to permanently remove the ungulates from the palila’s designated critical habitat. The court ruled that the federal Endangered Species Act trumps the county law.
“There is universal agreement among Hawaii forest bird experts that sheep and goats are the No. 1 threat to the palila’s survival,” Hawaii Audubon Society President Linda Paul said in a written statement Tuesday. “DLNR needs to take immediate, aggressive steps to remove these mammals, or we risk losing the palila forever.”
Earthjustice, the law firm representing the environmental groups, said the palila population has declined 66 percent in the last decade, leaving fewer than 2,200 birds.
Sylvester said that continuing population decline has prompted hunters to question the effectiveness of the aerial hunts. The county’s game management advisory commission will likely call for the DLNR to complete an environmental impact statement for the palila protection measures, including aerial hunting.
Sylvester said other factors, including low birth rates, higher birth rates for males than females and cat predation, are having bigger impacts on the palila than ungulates.