Is Hawai`i `Akepa on the Brink of Collapse? Alone among Peers, UH Professor Says Yes

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Is Lenny Freed a prophet without honor in his own land when he warns of doom for the Hawai`i `akepa? Or is he the boy crying wolf?

At the 2006 Hawai`i Conservation Conference, held in July at the Honolulu Convention Center, Freed, a professor of zoology at the University of Hawai`i, issued anew his predictions of imminent catastrophe for this endangered forest bird (Loxops coccineus) that has been the focus of much of Freed’s work for the last two decades. Freed’s talk at the conference, titled “`Akepa is Food Limited and Has Recently Crashed at Hakalau,” listed parasites, disease and competition for food with Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus) as reasons for what he claimed was a dramatic decline in the `akepa population at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Freed warns that the bird will be extinct within two decades at the outset if no heroic action is taken.

But his alarm is not widely shared by other bird and conservation experts in Hawai`i.

Consider the evaluation that the Hawai`i Forest Bird Recovery Team made of Freed’s most recent work and the three proposals for further Hakalau research he made last fall. Eight members of the team (including Freed) responded to team leader Eric VanderWerf’s request to participate last winter in evaluating Freed’s work, ranking specific questions about his work on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5. The highest average score on a single question barely climbed above a three (on Freed’s assertion that the numbers of white-eye have increased at the same time that Freed claims the `akepa demography has undergone a change). The average scores on other questions hovered between 1 and 2.

(Freed, not surprisingly, gave himself high marks – a four or five – on every issue. When asked about the propriety of having a scientist review his own work, VanderWerf, an ornithologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who studied under Freed as a graduate student, said that there was no overall policy “about whether [team] members are allowed to sit on panels that review their own work.” The case of Freed’s work on `akepa was the first time VanderWerf had confronted the question, he said. “There was another team member who could have been viewed as potentially biased in the opposite direction,” he said, “but rather than excluding one or two people, it seemed best to invite the entire team to participate… I presented the averages with and without the high and low scores as a way of trying to account for any potential bias.”)

VanderWerf said the recovery team generally thought there was some cause for concern about the `akepa, but did “not have a lot of confidence in Freed’s methods. The data need more careful analysis.” In addition, VanderWerf noted that “none of the data Freed presented has been published, and I doubt it would stand up to peer review.”

“If his conclusions were backed up by solid analysis, I agree it would be a huge cause for concern,” VanderWerf said. As it is, he continued, the response to Freed’s work by his peers “hasn’t been strong, which reflects a lack of confidence in his methodology and conclusions.”

Based in part on the recovery team’s recommendations and in part on the advice of staff biologists, the administrator of Hakalau refuge in January denied Freed’s request for the special-use permit needed for him to pursue his three research proposals. “Actually, we’ve denied him twice,” the administrator, Dick Wass, told Environment Hawai`i. “The first time was several years ago when he requested a special-use permit to conduct research on disease.”

In his letter to Freed of January 27, Wass said that reviews of Freed’s research proposals by his staff and the Forest Bird Recovery Team “clearly and uniformly show a lack of support for all three of the proposals and the hypothesis that competition for food with Japanese White-eyes is likely to cause extinction of the Hawai`i `Akepa within the next 10-20 years.”

Freed appealed the January denial to Barry Stieglitz, head of Hawaiian and Pacific Islands refuges. “The Hawai`i Forest Bird Recovery Team review that contributed to [the] decision should be retracted because of willful misrepresentation of my research by at least one of the reviewers, numerous cases of ignoring the literature, and ignoring some of the information in the documents provided,” he wrote in the appeal. “My scientific reputation has been irreparably harmed by spiteful behavior of the [U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Division] scientists.” Freed offered lengthy rebuttals to many of the reviewers’ charges in his letter and provided even more detailed rebuttals in one of six attachments.

Stieglitz responded on March 9, apologizing for the tardy reply, which he justified, however, as necessary given “the volume of the appeal letter and several attachments, as well as the complexity of the situation [which] required careful review and consideration.”

“As a result of that review,” he wrote, “I do not find compelling evidence to overturn the decision of Refuge Manager Wass…. Your rebuttal to the Team’s findings … is laden with accusation, but disappointingly often failed to address the Team’s concerns.”

Federal regulations gave Freed one last appeal – to the regional Fish and Wildlife Service director, David Allen, in Portland, Oregon. On April 3, Freed sent Allen his formal appeal, consisting of a 17-page, single-spaced letter, replete with figures 1 through 5, tables 1 through 3, and a map. Attached were eight documents, including unpublished manuscripts, galley proofs, supportive emails, and, once more, his “point-by-point rebuttal” to the Forest Bird Recovery Team’s review.

“I do call into question the dedication and competence of the refuge to deal with endangered species,” Freed wrote. “In effect, they are denying the reality that things are not going well for the Hawai`i `Akepa.” He went on to implore Allen to “fix the refuge system in Hawai`i. It is so insulated from the rest of the FWS that it is mired in cronyism… A refuge system needs to be told what to do by service employees who are better trained biologists.” And not only was the refuge system in Hawai`i in need of a fix; so, too, is the recovery team itself, dominated (per Freed) by USGS BRD scientists, with academic scientists, such as Freed himself, sorely underrepresented.

“I suspect that there are several reasons why the refuge is behaving so irrationally,” Freed told Allen. “One is too awful to state, and the evidence for this is that they have let the parents of my students and interns onto the refuge, but not my mother… The refuge staff are not only ignoring science, they are ethically compromised as well. A second reason for irrational behavior is that they do not want to hear bad news because they think it reflects badly on them. They are trying to kill the messenger…”

In May, Allen was in Honolulu and Freed met with him for nearly two hours, discussing the appeal letter and documents Freed had forwarded along with it. “I asked Dr. Freed at our meeting in Honolulu how he might judge his three proposals if he had received them from one or more of his graduate students,” Allen later wrote. “He said he would probably consider them to be good drafts. He also said that in the academic community there are higher standards than required by the Refuge and that similar proposals to the Refuge in the past were good enough before.”

“I agree that Dr. Freed may be right about past requirements from the Refuge,” Allen continued. “However, increasing public demand for accountability in science-based decisions has brought with it more requirements and higher standards of performance for the Service…. These criteria and the review requested of the HFBRT are both consistent with the Service’s new direction of ensuring our management decisions are based on the best available science.”

In his letter to Freed of June 6, Allen concluded by endorsing the conclusions of the Forest Bird Recovery Team, finding its review “to be a fair assessment” of the overall adequacy of Freed’s research proposals. “Therefore, … I concur with Refuge Manager Wass’ denial of a new [special use permit].”

Wass is pleased with the outcome. “Much of our decision was based on the Forest Bird Recovery Team’s findings,” Wass said. “These are the world’s experts, and almost all of them stated they didn’t feel his proposals or theories had validity. My staff and I also felt the same way, and we’re pleased our position was supported by the Forest Bird Recovery Team.”

Another View
Thane Pratt of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Division presented an overview of the status of Hawaiian forest birds. Reviewing more than a million records compiled from the 1970s to the present, Pratt and his team concluded that `akepa were in decline everywhere except Hakalau. And not just `akepa, but also the `akipola`au, the `oma`o, and Hawai`i creeper (Hemignathus munroi, Myadestes obscurus, and Oreomystis mana, respectively).

`I`iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) were in decline almost everywhere except Hakalau and East Maui. `Apapane (Himatione sanguinea) and `amakihi (Hemignathus virens) were holding their own; `elepaio (Chasiempis sandwichensis) were losing ground on O`ahu and the Big Island, but the Kaua`i population was stable. On the Big Island, palila (Loxioides bailleui) were holding steady, and on Maui the `akohekohe, `alauahio and parrotbill (Palmeria dolei, Paroreomyza montana, and Pseudonestor xanthrophrys, respectively) were stable.

During the period covered in his review, Pratt noted, several species or populations became extinct: the Kaua`i `o`o (Moho braccatus), the kama`o (Myadestes myadestinus), the `o`u (Psittirostra psittacea), and the nukupu`u (Hemingnathus lucidus) on Kaua`i; the O`ahu creeper (Paroreomyza maculate); the oloma`o (Myadestes lanaiensis), nukupu`u, `akepa, and po`ouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma) on Maui Nui; and on Hawai`i, the `alala (Corvus hawaiiensis) went extinct in the wild, although a population of about 50 is held for captive breeding.

The `akikiki or Kaua`i creeper (Oreomystis bairdi) is down to fewer than 1,000 individuals, Pratt said. Despite its alarmingly low population, the bird had not yet been placed on the federal list of endangered species, he noted.

What’s the Holdup?
In the May 19 issue of Science, an editorial on a proposed bill to weaken the Endangered Species Act led off with the failure of the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the `akikiki. The bird “would seem to fit anyone’s definition of an endangered species,” authors Stephen Trombulak, David Wilcove, and Timothy Male wrote. “Fewer than 1500 individuals survive in an area of only 86 km2; its numbers are declining and it is under assault from non-native predators, pathogens and competitors. Despite having been listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the World Conservation Union, the Kaua`i Creeper hasn’t yet earned a place on the U.S. endangered species list.”

Just last month, the `akikiki once again appeared on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of candidate species that may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. According to the news release the service issued at the time, a candidate species is one “for which the service has a sufficient amount of information on biological vulnerability and threats to support a proposal to list as endangered or threatened, but for which preparation and publication of a proposal is precluded by higher priority listing actions.” Candidates for listing are given a ranking, from 1 to 12 – with 1 being highest – which is based, the service says, on the “magnitude and imminence of threats” and by the taxonomic status of a given species. The `akikiki is given a rank of 2. The only other Hawaiian bird species proposed as a candidate for listing is the band-rumped storm petrel, Oceanodroma castro. It has been assigned a rank of 3.

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 17, Number 3 October 2006

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