A fight against invasion


POSTED: Tuesday, June 02, 2009

As state funding dries up, scientists devoted to protecting Hawaii's fragile ecosystem from invasive species such as miconia, coqui frogs, fire ants and snakes are scrambling to maintain the headway they've made against those pests, which threaten not only land and water resources, but also vital industries such as tourism.

With funding slashed, invasive species experts are wrestling over how to split up what's left of the money. Yes, there are lots of noisy frogs on the Big Island, but what about miconia, the fast-growing tree that's been brought under control fairly well on Oahu? Can the state risk regrowth, and with it the potential of landslides like those in Tahiti, where the trees' shallow roots have destabilized hillsides? And course there's the brown tree snake, an interloper from Guam, which airport crews, especially, must stop in its slithery tracks. The little fire ant hasn't made much of dent in the islands, but crews want to keep it that way, and it's always easiest to control a species before it gains a real foothold. Plus there's West Nile virus, the potentially serious disease spread by mosquitoes.

“;That's basically what we are hashing out right now. Figuring out what we can accomplish with what we have. It's not easy,”; said Patrick Chee, the state's invasive species coordinator, who works closely with the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, a joint effort of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, University of Hawaii, and Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

“;We have lost, essentially, in the invasive species program, (at least) 65 percent of our budget this coming fiscal year,”; said Chee. “;The reality of our being able to respond has been significantly reduced, but we will work on our priorities and move forward.”; The budget cuts raise the prospect of layoffs and furloughs, the elimination of whole programs — there's no funding at the moment for the Big Island coqui frog working group, for example — and the growing realization that Hawaii residents may have to tackle themselves some of the pests they once called state crews to combat.

“;There's nothing stopping anyone from going down to their local garden supply and buying a backpack sprayer and some citric acid”; to kill coqui frogs, for example, said Chee, who emphasized that a statewide hot line (643-PEST) continues to accept reports of invasive species, connecting directly with the Department of Agriculture. “;People should still call, but property owners also can help.”;

The upheaval in Chee's small corner of the state government provides a glimpse of the kinds of wrenching decisions being made statewide as departments try to maintain core services as taxpayer funding dissipates amid the severe recession.

Besides facing spending restrictions imposed because of the state's budget gap, the HISC's woes are compounded by a new state law, which takes effect July 1, reducing the portion of the conveyance tax transferred to the Natural Area Reserve Fund, and thus efforts to combat invasive species.

Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed the measure, HB 1741, because it simultaneously raised the conveyance tax on luxury homes, but the Legislature overrode the veto. Lawmakers who backed the bill said the hike in the conveyance tax rate should offset the decrease in the percentage disbursement, but that seems unlikely given that homes sales overall have dropped in Hawaii, reducing the total amount of tax collected.

Dozens of people testified against the bill, with many arguing that while the state would save a few million dollars in the short term, it had far more to lose over time, considering the risks to Hawaii's environment — and a tourism industry that depends on the state's natural beauty and resources — and the much higher cost, in time and manpower, of trying to rid the state of a pest that has achieved a sizable population.

That theme — of having to spend more later to make up for money saved now — resonates throughout the state, whether at schools run by the Department of Education or prisons by the Department of Public Safety.

Back at the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Chee tries to remain optimistic, despite the dire budget and the ever-present natural threats.

“;We are committed to protecting Hawaii from these invasive species,”; he said. “;If people can bear with us, we will continue to do what we can, but it's just a question of us having to cope with the economic realities like everybody else.”;




Funding cuts are all the more frustrating for invasive species experts given that the state has so far controlled the spread of several major threats, including one of the most high-profile pests: the noisy coqui frog.

Limited eradication efforts should continue on all islands with known populations of the nocturnal species, whose high-pitched mating call has disturbed the peace from dusk to dawn in infested areas, especially on the east side of the Big Island. Experts are especially keen to keep populations from bouncing back in areas that had been cleared.

The frog was accidentally introduced to Hawaii hidden in plants around 1988. With no natural predators, its population has reached 55,000 frogs per hectare in some parts of the Big Island, more than double the 24,000 frogs per hectare found in its native Puerto Rico.

Here is a breakdown, by island, of the known coqui frog populations, according to Patrick Chee, the state's invasive species coordinator, and the Web site of the Hawaii Invasive Species Council.

» Kauai: One known population in Lawai.

» Oahu: The island's only large, wild land population — about 100 frogs in Wahiawa — was silenced after two summers of systematic control work. Nurseries find frogs on plants shipped from the Big Island — including one last week in Honolulu — and workers kill them on the spot.

» Maui: About a dozen small populations have been destroyed and the last stronghold is at Maliko Gulch.

» Molokai: No known populations. Early detection paid off in 2002, when a lone calling coqui was reported and subsequently caught.

» Big Island: Coqui frogs have infested an estimated 60,000 acres of the east side of the island. Property owners are advised to control frogs where possible, with limited help from government crews. “;At this point, our main goal is to keep the coqui populations out of critical areas on the Big Island and to keep frogs from being transported to other islands,”; said Chee. “;It would cost $20 million just to cover those 60,000 acres with citric acid and we just don't have that kind of money.”; He praised past efforts for keeping the vast majority of the island — which totals nearly 2.6 million acres — coqui-free.