DLNR: Game management plan still in the works

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated the game management plan was submitted in 2012, not the correct year of 2010. The Tribune-Herald regrets the error.

A spokesman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife said in an email the agency is working to “update a game management plan” for Maunakea prepared and presented to them by a volunteer group of Big Island hunters in 2010.

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That’s two years before Big Island voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative establishing a Hawaii County Game Management Advisory Commission.

The Sept. 30 email was in response to an Aug. 24 letter to the editor of the Tribune-Herald by Don Baker that asserted the county’s Game Management Advisory Commission was informed by DOFAW “there will be no game management program and instead a hunting program will be implemented.”

“The so-called hunting program calls for a year-round open season with no time off for game reproduction. If the hunting community decides to self-regulate … eradication is next,” Baker wrote.

At a county GMAC meeting on March 21, 2016, DOFAW Administrator Dave Smith, according to the email, expressed “that he would like to see an increase in available hunting opportunities throughout the state. This would be in the form of opening up more hunting seasons and increasing bag limits.”

“He does not believe these open seasons will lead to eradication, neither has he advocated for that,” the spokesman said. “Having hunting seasons and bag limits are only a part of the way the division manages game.”

Jim O’Keefe, a member of the Game Management Advisory Commission, told the Tribune-Herald last month he didn’t think the commission has “been told exactly that” there will be no game management plan.

“I think that’s what some people have taken out of the comments we’ve heard,” O’Keefe said. “Apparently, there is only a hunting plan, not a game management plan, but in all fairness, the DLNR is working on a game management plan.”

“So far, we’re not happy with it and I think I speak for all the game commissioners in that regard,” he continued. “Alone, among the 50 states, Hawaii has no game management plan, and it’s impacted by the court order Palila vs. the DLNR (9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1978) that says we have to get rid of all the ungulates on the mountain that are affecting the palila habitat.”

A 2013 ruling by U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright mandated aerial eradication of the mammals in the habitat of the palila, a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Once found on Oahu, Kauai, and the Big Island, the palila, which is listed as endangered since 1967, now is found only in an area of about 25 square miles on Maunakea’s upper slopes.

The DOFAW email didn’t answer the Tribune-Herald’s question about a timeline for roll-out of a game management plan, with the spokesman responding, “We are in ongoing discussions with hunters and the GMAC to update the plan.”

“While we have not fully implemented that plan, we have accomplished many of the objectives that were set forth in the plan,” the spokesman said, and pointed to a new sent of hunting rules signed into law by Gov. David Ige in 2105, which the spokesman added are currently being updated.

“We estimate sheep and goat populations in Puuanahulu and Puuwaawaa using camera traps,” the spokesman said. “We have GPS and VHF collars on sheep in Puuwaawaa and Puuanahulu. We use information from these collars to determine home ranges, migration routes, and other spatial uses. We perform annual road surveys for game birds in Puuwaawaa and on Maunakea. We also started a survey strategy last year utilizing hunters with dogs to estimate game bird densities on Mauna Kea and in Kapapala.”

DLNR is required to submit yearly reports to the federal government on ungulates in the palila habitat on Maunakea as part of the Palila v. DLNR ruling.

Baker wrote in his Aug. 24 letter that court-ordered sheep eradication in palila habitat “has provided the perfect storm for a disastrous fire which could destroy the palila habitat that the eradication was supposed to protect.”

“Wildfire is always a threat to native habitats,” the DOFAW spokesman replied. “We maintain fuel breaks in the palila core habitat on Maunakea to help minimize and mitigate for that risk. We presented our plans to expand the fuel breaks, fire breaks and road corridors within that area at the last GMAC meeting … and it was well received.”

Aerial eradication of ungulates, including feral cattle, pigs, deer and goats, is now conducted outside the federally protected palila habitat since an exemption for state employees and contractors was added in 2016 to a law banning aerial hunting in Hawaii. The change to the law came after a Dec. 17, 2014, dismissal by now retired Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara of a lawsuit by the state against the county after Big Island Prosecutor Mitch Roth wouldn’t exempt state employees and contractors from prosecution if they hunted from aircraft outside the palila habitat.

Local hunters hailed the ruling, which became a bone of contention between them and DLNR about a year later when DOFAW announced it would conduct aerial eradication of feral ungulates in four Maui state forest reserves in November and December 2015.

Tom Lodge, then chairman of Hawaii County Game Management Advisory Commission accused DLNR of “essentially saying the state doesn’t have to comply with state law.”

Jeff DeRego, president of the Maui Hunters and Sportsman Club agreed, saying “They shouldn’t be shooting. They’re shooting, and they’re doing it in places that are actually hunting areas.”

DLNR interpreted the lawsuit dismissal differently, with spokeswoman Deborah Ward saying Hara “did not rule — one way or the other — whether state employees are exempt” from the ban. “Rather, he dismissed the state’s case and said that the issue should be determined by other legal means.”

O’Keefe said DLNR has “sat on” the game management document prepared by Big Island hunters “for a number of years.”

“And only recently has this issue been forced to the fore by the complaints by both the state Game Management Advisory Commission and our county commission,” he said. “… It is based, in part, on the work by the earlier volunteer committee. That’s what we’ve heard. … We do not have the actual document. And it won’t be released until they’re ready to finalize it and publish it.”

As for Baker’s assertion that, left to their own devices, hunters will wipe out all game animals on the Big Island?

“If we don’t get a comprehensive game management plan in the truest sense of the term — where animals are husbanded for recreation, for sport, for family-sustaining food — I think that would be the logical conclusion of not having a proper game management plan,” O’Keefe replied.

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“I don’t think that the writer’s being unfair about that.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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