Endangered Red `Ilima at Puako Vanishes in the Course of a Decade

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The land proposed for development as the Villages of `Aina Le`a is covered for the most part with scrub. When botanist Evangeline Funk surveyed the area in 1991, she found fountain and buffel grass, mesquite trees, and koa haole – vegetation typical of the alien-dominated savannah common in West Hawai`i.

Yet in one of the gulches crossing the property, Funk made a surprising discovery: 38 individuals of the endangered ko`oloa`ula, commonly known as red `ilima (Abutilon menziesii), concentrated in an area half the size of a standard parking stall.

Although note was taken of the presence of the endangered species in the 1991 Land Use Commission findings of fact, conclusions of law, and decision and order, no special protections for the plants were written into the conditions of approval. When the Hawai`i County Council passed the rezoning ordinance for the project in 1993, however, it required a “botanical preservation and mitigation plan” for the red `ilima and a native fern, Ophioglossum concinnum, that was at the time a candidate for the federal endangered species list. (The fern is no longer regarded as endemic to Hawai`i and no preservation plan is needed for it.)

In 2000, Funk was approached by Bridge `Aina Le`a with a request that she develop the requisite preservation plan. When Funk revisited the area, she found no red `ilima, leading her to the opinion that the plant “appears to have succumbed to the severe drought and wind conditions.”

“Without the presence of the plant it is difficult to recommend a location as an appropriate habitat for a preservation site,” she wrote in a letter to a Bridge representative.

“We do not know with certainty if there are viable seeds of the Abutilon in the seed bank which could produce new plants under more normal weather conditions. With this in mind, we are recommending that an area be set aside for the time being and another botanical survey be done when more normal weather conditions prevail… For now, our recommended preservation and mitigation plan is for you to not disturb the land within 500 feet of the location where the Abutilon menziesii Seem had been previously found.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred, according to a letter to Bridge representatives in October 2000. Dan Palawski, writing on behalf of the service, urged the company to avoid disturbance within 500 feet of the location where the plants were found, at least until another survey could be undertaken. “Meanwhile, we encourage any interest you have in incorporating red `ilima and other unique endemic dry forest plant species into your project either as artificially established wild populations or as horticultural use plants.”

Patricia Tummons

Volume 18, Number 9 March 2008

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