Federal and state officials have prepared a plan to attack the noisy coqui frog, a native of Puerto Rico.

Battle plan details
war to evict
isles’ coqui frogs

Officials hope to use federal
money to clear the frogs
after October this year

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> For the first time in five years, federal and state officials have prepared a plan to attack screeching Caribbean frogs. The first battles are to be fought on Kauai and the Big Island sometime after October.

By then officials should have $200,000 in federal money, some to be used for eradication, some for further research, said U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Tim Ohashi, who wrote the attack plan.

In 2004-2007, officials hope Congress will boost support by another $10.8 million.

The prime enemy is the coqui frog, an import from Puerto Rico that can reach concentrations of 8,000 per acre and every night can gobble 46,000 other creatures per acre, including native species. Its close relative, the greenhouse frog, is much less noisy but equally prolific and hungry.

Scientists worry they could devastate Hawaii's environment.

A state Department of Agriculture worker sprayed water containing lime in May as a test of its ability to kill noisy coqui frogs in a patch of non-native forest near Hilo's Prince Kuhio Plaza shopping mall.

Haiku, Maui, resident Jocelyn Perreira says that two years ago, a single coqui devastated her family.

From 5:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. every night, the frog shrieked its own name nonstop -- co-KEE, co-KEE, co-KEE -- Perreira said. "It's like a Chinese water torture -- drip, drip, drip," she said.

Her son, then 26, said he could not sleep. Her daughter said she could not read. "It destroys your concentration," Perreira said.

They tried closing the windows, but with no air circulation, their home turned into a hothouse.

Finally, they called the Maui Invasive Species Committee, which sent a man to climb a tree in the night during rain, looking for the frog. The man had a helmet with a light on it, which scared the frog into silence.

To get it to shriek some more, another person on the ground played a recording of another screeching frog until the tree-climber found and captured the offender.

"I cannot tell you the joy of living in our home again," Perreira said.

Jack Peterson, coordinator of the Maui committee, said a Makawao man climbed a ladder at night while his wife shined a flashlight at a frog in a tree. The man shot the frog with a BB gun, Peterson said.

A Huelo man paid neighborhood kids $5 per frog to capture the pests, Peterson said. The man eventually paid out $350, but it bought peace and quiet.

Much of the effort to control the frogs so far has been this kind of hand-to-frog combat.

By early 2000, concentrated caffeine spray emerged as a weapon to destroy the invaders in large numbers. Other possible frog killers are sprays of hydrated lime and pyrethrins, but more study on them is needed.

"Everybody feels caffeine is one tool. It is not the tool," the USDA's Ohashi said.

And commercial nurseries -- whose businesses could be damaged by the frogs -- refused to use caffeine because of burdensome requirements for environmental record-keeping.

Three tons of state-purchased caffeine sat unused in a Hilo warehouse.

Now a new plan has emerged.

The Maui committee, a collaboration of several agencies, will take some of the caffeine from Hilo and $87,500 obtained by Haleakala National Park and will spray frogs at three test sites in about a month, Peterson said.

Lyle Wong of the state Department of Agriculture said another three test sites on the Big Island will also be sprayed in about three weeks.

The tests will gather data on dead frogs, other creatures killed such as slugs and bugs, and effects on soil and water.

The data will be used for three purposes: to extend a one-year emergency Environmental Protection Agency permit for caffeine, which expires Sept. 27; to obtain a three-year U.S. Department of Agriculture permit; and to help write a federal environmental assessment of the use of caffeine, Ohashi said. That assessment is crucial for freeing federal officials to provide more help to the state.

If the assessment finds no significant environmental impact from caffeine, that will be a green light to use the $200,000 for eradication on Kauai and the Big Island.

Ohashi explained that Kauai has the smallest infestations, which would be easiest to eradicate, and the Big Island has the worst infestations, which are most desperately in need of control.

Officials now say the frogs can be eradicated only from Kauai, Oahu and Maui.

"On the Big Island we think we can contain them. We don't think we can eradicate them," Ohashi said.

That is the optimistic view. The alternate scenario is that the environmental assessment will show a need for a full-scale, time-consuming federal environmental impact statement.

"If we've got to do an EIS, it may be too late," Ohashi said.

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