Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 8, 2024

Contact:

Maxx Phillips, Center for Biological Diversity, (808) 284-0007, mphillips@biologicaldiversity.org
Chris Farmer, American Bird Conservancy, (808) 987-1779, cfarmer@abcbirds.org

Legal Victory for Imperiled Hawaiian Honeycreepers

HONOLULU— A judge has ruled in favor of conservation groups and the state of Hawai‘i, allowing a project to suppress mosquitos to protect imperiled Hawaiian honeycreepers on east Maui to proceed. The judge found that an environmental assessment was sufficient and a finding of no significant impact correctly issued for the project.

More than 40 species of birds known as Hawaiian honeycreepers and others are already gone from Hawaiian skies. Avian malaria, a disease transmitted by invasive mosquitoes, is driving the extinction of Hawai‘i’s forest birds. For some species a single bite from an infected mosquito means certain death. Many of these birds are on the verge of extinction in the wild.

Maui’s endemic forest birds are facing an immediate extinction crisis. The Kiwikiu and ʻĀkohekohe, which only live in east Maui, are expected to become extinct within two to 15 years if avian malaria is left unchecked.

As climate change accelerates, mosquitoes and the viruses they carry, which are both limited by cold temperatures, are expanding their range into upper-elevation forests, threatening what little safe habitat these birds have left. Endangered Maui forest birds like the Kiwikiu and ‘Ākohekohe will disappear without rapid lifesaving action.

“Extinction is forever, but for our last remaining forest birds on Maui it doesn’t have to be inevitable,” said Maxx Phillips, Hawai‘i and Pacific Islands director and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court made clear that Hawai‘i will not sit back and watch our forest fall silent.”

The decision was issued by Judge John M. Tonaki of the Hawai‘i State Court. Tonaki ruled in favor of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources and American Bird Conservancy, represented by the Center for Biological Diversity. It clears the way for the use of a process known as Incompatible Insect Technique to reduce invasive mosquito populations and protect imperiled forest birds.

This safe technique has been used to control mosquitos without using pesticides. Incompatible Insect Technique involves the use of a naturally occurring bacteria that can function as a mosquito birth control. When these males mate with females on the landscape, the eggs do not hatch, which will hopefully result in a decline in the mosquitoes that carry avian malaria.

The mosquitoes being released in Hawai‘i are all male and do not bite. They are the same species as other mosquitoes that were unfortunately introduced to Hawai‘i in 1826 and are now quite common statewide. Hawai‘i did not have mosquitoes before European arrival.

In March 2023 the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved a final environmental assessment for implementation of the project on east Maui and found it would have no significant impact. Opponents filed a claim saying the state had erroneously accepted the assessment and incorrectly issued a finding of non-significance.

In his order Judge Tonaki wrote, “There is no genuine issue of material fact relating to whether the (state) complied with the requirements under the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act.”

“American Bird Conservancy joined the lawsuit because preventing the extinction of Hawai‘i’s birds due to avian disease and mosquitoes is one of ABC’s highest priorities,” said Chris Farmer, Ph.D, with American Bird Conservancy. “ABC and our partners in Birds, Not Mosquitoes thoroughly evaluated this effort, and are pleased to see the court also agrees. We strongly believe that this approach is our best chance at preventing bird extinctions on Maui and are excited to continue moving forward with mosquito releases to save Kiwikiu, ‘Ākohekohe, and other native forest birds.”

As the Incompatible Insect Technique is being deployed on the slopes of Haleakalā, additional work continues in a rush against the clock to save Hawai‘i’s forest birds across the Hawaiian islands.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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