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By James Gonser Advertiser Leeward Bureau

WAI‘ANAE, Hawai‘i (December 18, 2000 – Honolulu Advertiser)---An endangered bird that Hawaiians used to select the best trees for canoes may soon get additional protection from the federal government to ensure its survival.

The O‘ahu ‘elepaio, a small forest bird that once inhabited almost the entire island, is now limited to just a few areas in the Wai‘anae and Ko‘olau mountains.

The bird was placed on the list of endangered species May 18 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the office is now designating what is called a critical habitat for the ‘elepaio.

The proposed critical habitat will be published in April, at which time the public can comment or request a hearing.

Senator Colleen Hanabusa (D-Barbers Point, Makaha) said the ‘elepaio needs to be protected for its historical and cultural significance. The bird’s plight also highlights the protection needed for natural areas on the Leeward Coast, she said.

"People don’t assume we have endangered species and natural habitats out here," Hanabusa said. "They always attribute that to the Windward side of the island because they have such vocal environmentalists. Here we have what I consider to be one of the most interesting little creatures that should be taken care of and with great historical significance to the Hawaiian community."

A critical habitat defines the physical and biological features essential to the survival of an endangered species. The area is determined by looking at the current and historical range of a species and its needs for survival and reproduction.

A critical habitat does not create a preserve or close areas to private or state use, but does limit activities such as logging, grazing and recreation that require federal permits.

Of Monarch Family

The O‘ahu ‘elepaio is a member of the monarch flycatcher family. Seven small populations with about 1,900 birds remain in the world. The birds occupy less than 4 percent - about 13,400 acres - of their original range.

Marilet Zablan, coordinator for vertebrate conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said a safe habitat is needed to increase the population of the species in order to remove the bird from the endangered species list.

"We know quite a bit about habitat requirements of ‘elepaio," Zablan said, "what they like to nest in, what sort of forest they can survive and breed in and roughly what size tree a pair might need to set up house."

According to Hawaiian legend, the ‘elepaio helped canoe makers judge the quality of koa logs. If the insect-eating bird landed on the log and pecked at it, the wood was considered to be of poor quality, but if the bird sang, the wood was considered sound.

Of the 32 Hawaiian birds listed as threatened or endangered, only one other, the palila, which nests on the slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, has an established critical habitat.

Along the Leeward Coast, the ‘elepaio still nests in the Honouliuli Preserve, in Makua Valley and in the ‘Ohikilolo area. In Honouliuli, the bird is under the protection of The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. The Army protects the bird in Makua. But Hanabusa is concerned about ‘Ohikilolo, which is being considered as an alternative site for a city landfill to replace the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill.

The city’s Waimanalo Gulch in Kahe Valley uses 86.5 acres of a 200-acre site. The city completed a draft environmental impact study in June, hoping to expand the landfill by 60.5 acres, but met with so much community opposition that a more extensive study is now being conducted.

A city spokesman said alternatives are being considered, including expansion, new technology and moving the landfill to another site, including ‘Ohikilolo. The report will be published next year.

Hanabusa is against expanding the landfill, which she says is out of place across from the plush Ko Olina development, but even considering ‘Ohikilolo as an alternative is absurd.

"I want the community to be aware that if the city comes back and tells us that ‘ohikilolo is the alternative site, that we have this endangered species living there," Hanabusa said. "The Leeward Coast has become basically the site for an environmental dumping ground with no consideration given to the significance of the coast."

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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