Native birds’ future
soaring with land deal

Alala habitat in South Kona
will become a wildlife refuge

By Harold Morse

Prospects for the Hawaiian crow, Hawaiian hawk and other threatened birds are flying high with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service multimillion-dollar purchase of 5,300 acres of Big Island habitat as a national wildlife refuge.

The secretary of the Interior has authorized acquisition of the site on Kai Malino Ranch in South Kona, formerly part of the McCandless Ranch, it was announced yesterday.

"We are proud of our role in preventing this essential native forest habitat from being destroyed and are thrilled that it will be added to the National Wildlife Refuge system," said Linda Paul, president of Hawaii Audubon Society.

Early in this decade, federal biologists found about 10 Hawaiian crows or alala on McCandless Ranch in Kona, the only place the bird existed in the wild.

Ranch owners had previously denied access to officials, but a 1991 lawsuit by the Audubon Society against the ranch and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compelled the service to carry out a recovery plan for the endangered bird.

Now another suit objecting to a logging operation on the land has helped bring about sale of the habitat as a protected refuge.

Last year, the local and national Audubon Society, represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, then known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, again went to court.

Citing the federal Endangered Species Act, their suit targeted koa logging at Kai Malino Ranch. Logging threatened to destroy essential breeding, nesting and foraging habitat for the last wild flock of the critically endangered alala, their suit said.

The habitat is home to four other endangered native birds -- the Akiapolaau, Hawaii Akepa, Hawaii Creeper and Io or Hawaiian hawk. Additionally, the endangered Opeapea or hoary bat, a dozen endangered Hawaiian plants and rare native dry forest likely will benefit from the federal protection.

In late 1995, negotiations to purchase the property broke down, and landowners announced plans to begin logging the native koa forest. In March 1996, the second Audubon suit was filed. Two months later, the landowners agreed to refrain from felling any trees in the essential alala habitat, and since then no logging has occurred.

David Henkin, attorney with Earth-justice Legal Defense Fund, credits vigorous citizen enforcement of the Endangered Species Act as giving the threatened birds a new beginning.

"It's important to remember that, without this law, Hawaii's endangered species would be pushed even closer to the brink of extinction," he said.

Recovery efforts required in the settlement of the first suit in 1993 have raised the wild alala population to 13.

The owners -- three sisters -- have agreed to accept $7.78 million for the land.

"This has been kind of a mixed plate of sorts," said Nohea Santimer, one of the sisters. "This is kind of the end of a long disagreement with Fish and Wildlife over how these lands should be managed for benefit of the birds (alala) or for the benefit of additional species as well.

"The family feels like we've been really good stewards of the land."

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