Dispute continues about aerial shooting that’s killed thousands of goats, sheep on Mauna Kea

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An attempt to save the endangered palila has included the sound of rotors, gunfire, arguments and sheep and goats eating the trees the bird needs to survive.

An attempt to save the endangered palila has included the sound of rotors, gunfire, arguments and sheep and goats eating the trees the bird needs to survive.

Now, as the number of sheep and goats drops, the pressure to end the aerial shooting is as intense as ever.

But helicopters and crews are expected to return next year as the state Department of Land and Natural Resources continues to try and obey a federal court order to thin the populations of goats and sheep on Mauna Kea to minuscule amounts.

“The goal is to get the numbers as close to zero as possible,” said Division of Forestry and Wildlife Branch Manager Scott Fretz, who is based on Maui.

The order is to protect the palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper that requires the mamane tree to survive. Sheep and goats eat leaves and bark on adult trees and consume fresh growth that results in a shrinking area where the palila can survive, environmentalists argued in court. To prevent the animals from re-entering the area, government agencies also are erecting large stretches of fencing.

But the practice has long had its opposition.

Hunting history

The state’s actions have been opposed by residents and were temporarily deemed illegal by Hawaii County.

In 2012, the county made shooting from an aircraft illegal, building on a 1923 state law that barred the practice. Voters also created the Game Management Advisory Commission in part because of their frustration with the DLNR, said commission chairman Tom Lodge.

But the DLNR is allowed to shoot from helicopters over Mauna Kea because of the federal order, although the state law prevents it elsewhere.

The struggle of helicopter-based shooting dates to 1979, when a federal court ordered the removal of all feral sheep and goats from the mountain, expanding that to mouflon sheep in 1989.

“I find that the presence of mouflon sheep in numbers sufficient for sport-hunting purposes is harming the palila,” Judge Samuel P. King wrote. “They degrade the mamane ecosystem to the extent that there is an actual present negative impact on the palila population that threatens the continued existence and recovery of the species. Once this determination has been made, the Endangered Species Act leaves no room for balancing policy considerations, but rather requires me to order the removal of the mouflon sheep from Mauna Kea.”

Harvest numbers

Operations have killed 2,984 feral sheep and goats during the past three years, according to data provided by the DLNR. Almost all were sheep, although 28 goats were included.

But that time frame also saw a dramatic reduction in collections: Each harvest was smaller than the previous year.

In 2013, during seven operations, the DLNR brought down 2,051 animals. The biggest haul occurred April 22-25 that year, when 805 were killed. In 2014, the DLNR had 10 operations, which eliminated 705 animals. For 2015, the department had six operations and brought in 226 sheep and no goats.

“Numbers have declined over time and staff is increasingly reliant on Judas sheep with radio collars to find the remaining animals. Forward-looking infrared was also used,” the state wrote in its 2014 report to the court.

That report listed 22,078 sheep and goats eliminated from the mountain by all means.

The operation has done more than kill ungulates, Lodge said.

“It’s destroyed the mountain, that’s what it’s done,” he said.

He views the expansion of grasses into areas previously cleared by sheep as a fire hazard and a threat to replanting efforts. He said there are other controls, such as artificial water supplies, that can limit damage to the native environment.

“We are not going back to pre-contact,” he said, so efforts to deal with invasive species needs to adjust to the modern situation.

Other options?

Lodge advocates controlling the existing population with better access and support for hunters.

One hunter disputes the necessity of continued flights.

Dick Hoeflinger said there likely will always be a “remnant herd,” and continuing to pursue the animals with helicopters is only a waste of taxpayers’ money. He also advocates using hunters to keep things under control.

Lodge points to the efforts to control cattle in Pu‘u ‘O‘o, where the DLNR is working with hunters to bring down the Hawaiian cattle population.

It’s a “very successful cattle hunt that’s going on without a single shot from the air,” he said.

But the DLNR said that relying on hunters is not sufficient. The most recent report to the court said hunters made 747 trips into the area and harvested 48 sheep.

That poor showing is in part because the DLNR does not provide hunters the support they need to control the ungulates, Hoeflinger said. Hunters need information about where the herds are and better access to those areas, he said.

In the 2014 filing, the DLNR said it provides location information, primarily by word of mouth. Hoeflinger said he has never received an update to herd location nor has anyone he knows.

In addition, what to do with the carcasses following aerial hunts remains a challenge.

For some time, the DLNR simply left the animals where they fell. This led to a public outcry at the waste of so much meat.

The department began allowing vehicles into the area and a helicopter would drop the carcasses nearby for collection. During the past three years, 1,335 animals have been salvaged, about 44.7 percent of those killed.

During the past three years, the number of palila on Mauna Kea has varied. The DLNR estimates there were 2,176 birds in 2012, 1,799 in 2013 and 2,070 in 2014. There were an estimated 3,350 birds on the mountain in 1980, according to the department.

Overall, the environment has noticeably improved throughout the years, Hoeflinger said.

“Anybody with open eyes will see mamane,” he said.

The “browse lines” marking the highest reach of the animals are gone, and sprouts are continuing to rise, but that improvement is not worth the cost of the helicopters and crews, he added.

Email Graham Milldrum at gmilldrum@westhawaiitoday.com.