HILO — Council Chairman Dominic Yagong found plenty of support Wednesday for two bills challenging the state Department of Land and Natural Resources by taking up the cause of island hunters.
“We at the county level can no longer just sit back and relax and leave it to Oahu,” Yagong said in a speech punctuated with applause from the crowd. “If you don’t have legislation, you get pushed to the side. … We say here in Hawaii County, enough is enough.”
About 100 people testified Wednesday during a heavy agenda that also included a contentious bill creating a Puna geothermal buffer zone. About half of the testifiers stayed for the vote some 10 hours into the 8 a.m. meeting.
Bill 261 would outlaw any aerial shooting of game animals. Bill 260 is a charter amendment to create a county Game Management Advisory Council. The bills target attempts by DLNR to protect the endangered palila bird by shooting them with rapid-fire automatics after herding them with helicopters. It is illegal for anyone else to shoot game from aircraft.
The bill for the charter amendment passed 8-0 on the first of three required votes before it can be put on the Nov. 6 ballot. It must receive at least six votes each time. The aerial shooting bill passed 8-0, and faces one more simple majority vote before being sent to the mayor for signature or veto.
Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi was absent for both votes.
The vote came after a Monday letter from the state Attorney General’s Office, warning the council that it didn’t have the jurisdiction to enact an aerial shooting ban. The shooting is required by a stipulated court order in a 1978 federal case supporting the palila, Deputy Attorney General Donna Kalama said in the letter.
“The county has no authority to ban or otherwise interfere with the state of Hawaii’s activities,” Kalama said in the letter. “The federal district court approved an order that requires the state of Hawaii to … shoot ungulates in the palila’s critical habitat area.”
Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffmann was worried about the letter. He called Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida to advise him whether he could vote in favor without violating his oath of office or incurring liability. Ashida said legislative immunity adequately protects the council from liability. The practical effect of enforceability, however, he said, is “outside the control of this county.”
South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford called it “an evil letter,” and she urged the public to lobby state lawmakers and “continue the fight at the state level.”
Ford decried the inhumanity of what she called DLNR “chopper jockeys” who “can’t hit the side of the barn.”
Dozens of testifiers supported both bills, while only a handful opposed the aerial shooting bill.
Mauna Kea hunter Tony Sylvester showed a graphic video of feral cats killing and eating baby palila birds right out of the nest. He said the tall grasses enable cats and rats to hide and then grab the birds when the parents leave the nest. Undergrowth is getting out of control because of the lack of ungulates to clear the invasive weeds, he said.
Another video showed helicopters flying at tree-level creating loud noises blowing the trees in an attempt to flush the sheep out of hiding. The choppers disturb the birds and cause them to abandon their nests, he said.
Other footage showed dead and rotting animals hanging from hogwire fences and piles of rotting animals and bones along fencelines.
Robert White of Blue Water Hunter, speaking from Kona, praised the council for considering a game commission. He cited his experience with the West Hawaii Fisheries Commission, and said the hunters need a similar board.
“I think the hunters need a voice. The only voice we’re hearing now is the government,” White said. “I think hunters have very good ideas, and they’re not being listened to.”
Subsistence hunting has long been a part of the island culture. A baseline study of food self-sufficiency in Hawaii County released last week estimates that hunters add 163,000 pounds of meat — primarily from goats, sheep and pigs — to island tables over the course of a year. Bird hunting also contributes to the Big Island diet.
Noah Gomes, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, noted that he is part Hawaiian, but he disagrees that hunting ungulates on the slopes of Mauna Kea is a traditional Hawaiian cultural practice. He said Hawaiians traditionally went to the forest for wood, plants and medicinal herbs.
“To say this is a traditional practice is wrong. Those (ungulates) didn’t exist,” Gomes said.
Lloyd Cain of Waimea said the critically endangered palila uses the wool from the feral sheep to line their nests, improving their chance of survival now that they’ve moved higher up Mauana Kea’s slopes to get away from development.
“When we had 40,000 sheep on Mauna Kea, we had more palila,” Cain said. “They need the wool. The sheep and the bird work together.”