Review: The Decline and Fall of the Po‘ouli: A Cautionary Tale of Delay, Dissent

posted in: August 2008 | 0

Recently, it seems as though there’s a boom market in books about endangered species that have gone or are well on their way to extinction. And Hawai‘i, unfortunately, offers no shortage of candidate subjects. Two years ago, there was Mark Walters’ book on the ‘alala, Seeking the Sacred Raven. As readers of Environment Hawai‘i may recall, that volume seemed to me an exercise in vain self-indulgence. It shed little light on the circumstances lead- ing to the ‘alala’s plight, while giving free rein to Walters’ own existential angst.

An entirely different animal is Alvin Powell’s new book on the po‘ouli, The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird (Stackpole Books, 2008). Powell’s account relies heavily on interviews with the biologists who discovered the bird in 1973 and studied it over the next three decades. His retelling of their hardships and joys makes for lively, engrossing reading. In several instances, Powell has provided the first published record of their experiences, making his work invaluable as an oral history, if nothing else (though it is much more). That there is a crying need for this type of record was underscored with the recent death of David Woodside, the former state biologist who was among those involved with the po‘ouli and interviewed by Powell.

In recounting the factors that forced the po‘ouli into ever higher, ever wetter, and seemingly ever more hostile habitat, Powell provides a succinct but well- grounded recap of human disturbance in the islands. The fateful introduction of the mosquito, a vector of devastating disease for many native birds, is one of the critical turning points in this history. Powell relates this event and its heartbreaking consequences with a fresh voice, diving deep into scientific literature going back half a century or more.

And though Powell provides a good deal of helpful context, he manages always to bring the story back to the bird. For ex- ample, while there’s no shortage of discus- sions of the ways in which feral pigs damage habitat for native Hawaiian forest birds, Powell describes the precise ways in which pigs affected the East Maui forest where the po‘ouli was making its last stand.

“Through the mid-1980s, [Cameron] Kepler and [Steve] Mountainspring became more and more worried by what they saw in the forests of Hanawi. Po‘ouli numbers were declining, and increasing numbers of pigs were wiping out the forest understory. And the pigs’ wallowing wasn’t just clearing out the vegetation that the po‘ouli relied on for the snails and insects it ate. It was also causing extensive erosion of the sloped forest floor, endangering the forest itself.” The two measured soil loss over the next year, with Mountainspring telling Powell that, “in areas there was really massive soil loss… The erosion was so horrific there.”

At the same time, it became clear that po‘ouli numbers were in steep decline. Although estimates of its population were always very rough, what data were available led scientists to believe that its numbers fell between 80 and 99 percent from 1975 to 1981.

By the mid-1980s, experts agreed that an integral part of any effort to recover the po‘ouli and other rare birds in East Maui would have to be a fence to keep out pigs. But when the federal Fish and Wildlife Service sought to get the state’s cooperation in building a fence, it ran into a brick wall. Powell provides details on the state’s maddening foot-dragging at what might well have been a critical time for the po‘ouli’s chance for survival.

After the federal government had approved funds for the fencing, Powell writes, Allan Marmelstein, head of the FWS office in Honolulu, wrote the director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Susumu Ono, in October 1985. Marmelstein cited “the drop in po‘ouli numbers, the birds’ limited geographic range, and the dramatic increase in pig damage.” He noted that fences were an element in the forest bird recovery plan for Maui and Moloka‘i, and that the federal government would be paying for the fences. Since the land was owned by the state, approval was needed from Ono’s department.

“Over the next three months, the state tried to ensure that the proper paperwork was filed and that it wouldn’t get stuck with the project’s bill,” Powell writes. “Their correspondences showed little concern that a remaining tract of intact native forest be preserved to secure the future of an imper- iled native bird.”

“Throughout this process,” he continues, “there were signs that the state had little enthusiasm for the fencing effort. On October 31, 1985, a state official refused to meet with Marmelstein, saying ‘there was nothing to discuss.’ On November 7, Ono wrote to Marmelstein that they hadn’t de- cided whether the project was a good idea.” Even the Natural Area Reserve System Commission, which had a role to play since much of the area to be fenced was part of a state Natural Area Reserve, refused to cooperate, although the Hanawi NAR management plan “clearly supported removing pigs from Hanawi,” Powell notes. Then- NARSC executive secretary Robert Lee informed the FWS that the request for a special permit for the fence “contains little or no detail on method and procedure, the potential adverse impact on the native eco- system, and the management of the in- stalled project…. We perceive our staff review and recommendation for a subse- quent NARS Commission evaluation to be largely a matter of weighing the benefit of the project against detrimental effects that likely will occur to achieve that benefit.”

“While the state was dithering over per- mits and dragging its feet on the paper- work, it was also adamant that its turf be protected,” Powell writes. “Lee chastised Cameron Kepler for not waiting for the state to issue a special use permit for his research in Hanawi, warning [Ernest] Kosaka [of FWS] … that Kepler’s permitless work was ‘technically illegal’ and that the state could confiscate equipment used in it, including the helicopters that touched down in the reserve.”

The state’s recalcitrance was only the first stumbling block. Estimates of what it would cost to build the fence in rugged Hanawi turned out to outstrip the funds available for the project. As Powell writes, it would be another three years before the fencing project was launched. “During those three years, pigs continued to run free through Hanawi, and the po‘ouli lost more and more habitat. Though three birds were seen during the November 1985 trip… no po‘ouli were seen at all in 1987, and though some were spotted in 1988, none were seen in 1989.”

Throughout the 1990s, sightings of po‘ouli became even less frequent. In 1994, Michelle Reynolds and Tom Snetsinger found five or six po‘ouli, which fed hopes that a last-ditch effort to save the bird might have a chance of success. A year later, the Maui Critically Endangered Spe- cies Project (informally called the Po‘ouli Project) was up and running, Powell writes. Paul Baker, who headed up fieldwork for the project, mapped out home ranges of six birds, including two pairs. In 1996, the known population had dropped to five. “Worse, in July, both pairs lost a partner… The remaining po‘ouli population totaled three.”


But as the bird’s population crashed, dissent among those charged with its recovery soared. Much of what Powell describes is well known to those closest to the project. Those of us more distant heard occasional rumors of personality clashes, disputed decisions, and other disagreements, but knowing exactly who and what were at issue was usually difficult. Powell, how- ever, was able to get those involved to speak candidly of their experiences, and the result sheds a great deal of light on the many problems that, perhaps inevitably, arise when dozens of individuals, agencies, and agendas are thrown together in a common effort.

One of the more bizarre angles to emerge from Powell’s history is the role Mike Buck played. Buck, as head of the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife through the 1990s, was the boss of every state employee and contract worker involved with the po‘ouli’s recovery – which, Powell notes, Buck evidently thought was a futile process from the outset. Mark Collins, who headed up the Maui field work for several years, recounted to Powell a conversation he had with Buck while attend- ing the annual Hawai‘i Conservation Con- ference, a short time after Collins was brought onto the project. Collins, Powell writes, was pulled aside by Buck, who then asked him, “What are we going to do about the po‘ouli?”

“Collins says he began recounting the story of New Zealand’s black robin, drawing lessons from an effort that recovered the robin from a single breeding pair. Then he stopped.”

“ ‘It turns out he wasn’t really listening to me,’ Collins says. ‘That wasn’t what he was referring to. He was thinking in the context of some kind of ceremony about the passing of the po‘ouli. Here I am a couple of weeks into this, and they’re talking funeral.”

A few pages later, Powell describes a meeting in April 1998 that Buck called, ostensibly to build “mutual understanding of the available options … for po‘ouli recovery.” In talking with Powell, however, Buck described the meeting “as something of a counseling session for those who had cared for a dying friend: the po‘ouli.”

“Buck says that because he had lived through the death of both his wife and father, he recognized what was going on with those involved in the recovery effort and what was behind the disagreements. ‘I had a whole different perspective on grieving and on how to manage this issue. What we were really doing was managing an extinction. I knew that going in, and what I was seeing all around me were the kinds of things people do when they’re grieving: blaming someone, fear, all those kinds of things.’”

At the meeting, Buck said, “I was trying to talk to people about how you have an extinction in a culturally appropriate way.”

Yet others, including Robert Smith of the FWS Honolulu office, weren’t giving up, although he acknowledged that the federal government should have given the bird’s recovery higher priority.

Powell writes: “Despite Smith’s acknowledgement, the lesson that delay would only further the po‘ouli’s decline appeared not to have been learned – or at least not heeded. Though these birds of unknown lifespan were already several years old, four more years of planning and pa- perwork still lay ahead before a single po‘ouli was translocated, and six more years passed before one would be captured for breeding.”

In gruesome detail, Powell describes many of the conflicts that led to that delay. No one can know exactly what role the dithering and conflicts and foot-dragging played in the po‘ouli’s ultimate extinction – a well-documented event that occurred near midnight on Friday, November 26, 2004, when the last known bird died in captivity.

One can say with certainty, however, that the years of turmoil did nothing to enhance the bird’s slim chance of survival. By dissecting those conflicts, Powell has laid out a cautionary tale – and although the po‘ouli is beyond help, his description of all that went wrong in efforts to save it should be required reading for anyone involved in future recovery efforts. For the rest of us, it’s maddening, aggravating, informative – and well-written, to boot. Although the subject is hard reading at times, Powell’s prose carries the story along.

And, despite it all, he ends on an upbeat note. Powell quotes Jim Jacobi, who was as deeply involved in the po‘ouli story as anyone else. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” Jacobi told Powell. “I tend to be one of the optimists who feel we may still see another.”

— Patricia Tummons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *