Spreading their wings

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The alala hasn’t been seen in the wild for about 13 years, but an effort to prevent Hawaii Island’s native crow from going the way of the dodo could soon begin to pay off.

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The alala hasn’t been seen in the wild for about 13 years, but an effort to prevent Hawaii Island’s native crow from going the way of the dodo could soon begin to pay off.

According to a draft of the state’s revised Wildlife Action Plan, there are now 114 alala being raised in captivity — enough to begin reintroducing the birds to the island’s forests as early as next year.

But any celebrations at this point might be premature.

Scott Fretz, the state’s Fish and Wildlife chief, said funding still needs to be secured to support reintroduction — which includes tracking, veterinary support and predator control — and give them the best chance of survival.

He didn’t have a cost estimate immediately available, but a 2008 alala recovery plan drafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the total cost of implementation at $14.38 million over a five-year period. That estimate included breeding in addition to reintroduction and other support costs.

“We’ve got some funding to do this; we don’t have all the funding we need,” he said.

“We’re still looking for a complete funding package to sustain it in the long term.”

Fretz said additional funding could come from state or federal sources.

“We do plan to do the release within the next five years,” he said.

The alala’s historical range included low- and high-elevation forests around Hualalai and the western and southeastern slopes of Mauna Loa. The crow, one of Hawaii’s many endemic species, wasn’t found anywhere else in the world.

Fretz said reintroduction would occur at two locations: Upper Ka‘u Forest Reserve and Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve.

An earlier attempt to reintroduce alala in South Kona in the 1990s proved unsuccessful as the birds became susceptible to disease and predation.

Of the 27 captive-raised juvenile alala that were released, 21 died and the remaining six were recaptured.

As a result, the focus turned to raising a larger flock that could sustain release efforts.

Fretz said additional efforts also will be taken to ensure their survival, including better predator control and habitat selection.

The birds are being raised at the Keauhou and Maui bird conservation centers operated by the San Diego Zoo.

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With 114 birds in total, both facilities are at capacity. If releases don’t occur soon, Fretz said the centers will restrict breeding to control the captive population.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaii tribune-herald.com.

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