DLNR Pursues Incompatible Goals on Land Adjoining Hakalau Refuge

posted in: June 2011 | 0

Like a dagger through the heart, the state-owned Piha tract tears straight through the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge.

Technically, Piha is part of Hawai`i’s system of forest reserves, set aside in the early part of the 20th century to protect watershed values. Over the years, however, forest reserves, unless they have been put into the Natural Area Reserves System, have come to be regarded by hunters and state managers alike as the legitimate and almost exclusive domain of sportsmen.

Piha is a good example. On the 2003 draft management guideline maps of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the upper portion of the Piha tract – the part that adjoins fenced management units of the Hakalau refuge on the north and south – is designated for mixed use, with the uses including some forestry products, pig and sheep hunting, and recreation. 

Yet the only use at Piha is hunting. There are no published hiking trails in the area, no camp sites, and no other visitor amenities that might attract recreational enthusiasts. According to DOFAW’s Hilo office, which issues permits for personal-use gathering of foliage, there are no more than a handful of requests each year for Piha.

Roger Imoto, Big Island administrator for the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said the area was managed for sustained yield hunting and that it would be fair to describe it as a de facto game management area. Both Scott Fretz, wildlife program manager for DOFAW, and DOFAW administrator Paul Conry disputed that characterization, saying that sustained yield was a term that applied only to the state’s officially designated game management areas. Under DLNR management guidelines, Piha falls into the A-2 class of hunting areas, where “game management is an objective integrated with other uses,” instead of being the primary objective, as it is in GMAs (class A-1). According to the guidelines, in A-2 areas, “habitat may be manipulated for game enhancement. Game populations are managed to acceptable levels using public hunting.”

But when it comes to Piha, there is no management whatsoever. The state has no idea how many pigs are in the area nor how many are removed by hunters. Joey Mello, a wildlife biologist for DOFAW on the Big Island, said that there’s no hunter check-in station for upper Piha. Hunters are supposed to phone in their catch to DOFAW, but, he added, “I don’t know if they report how much the catch is. Our data is pretty sketchy. We rely on the honor system.”

Fretz said that areas like Piha are “a kind of gray area…. It’s not a controlled category,” where there are no bag limits and no closed seasons. Nor, he said, is it “technically” a GMA.

At present, hunting rules for the upper Piha area would indicate that the state regards it as an area where pig production is to be encouraged. There are daily bag limits (two pigs and one sheep per hunter per day). Dogs, which help track prey, are not permitted. And hunting is allowed only on weekends and state holidays.

Fretz was asked why the restrictions on the upper Piha area were so strict. Dogs were not permitted, he said, so that the area could be used for “stalker-type hunting.” As for the weekend-only restrictions, he said, that went back to plantation days, when workers were free only on weekends.

Making hunting at Piha even more daunting is the fact that there are no roads leading off Keanakolu Road (the unpaved road around the eastern mid-level slope of Mauna Kea) into Piha. From Keanakolu, hunters have to hike into Piha. (Some refuge staff suspect, however, that hunters gain access to Piha by following the fenceline road inside the Maulua unit and cutting fences to get to the animals.) 

Fretz noted that DOFAW was proposing changes to its hunting rules statewide, although no changes are in the works for the upper Piha area. The proposed changes were pretty much limited to NARS units and other areas of high conservation priority, he said, while a wholesale re-evaluation of hunting rules awaits the revision of DOFAW management guidelines for all the islands. Asked when that might happen, Fretz said that guidelines had been completed for O`ahu, but after the economic downturn occurred, no further progress had been made. He couldn’t say when work on the guidelines would start up again. 

According to Fretz, the draft hunting rules are nearly in final form and should be forwarded to the Board of Land and Natural Resources for its approval within a few weeks. (For more on the hunting rule revisions, see the article in the January 2011 issue of Environment Hawai`i, “State’s Proposed Hunting Rules Fail to Protect Forest, Critics Say.”)

“The approach that I’m taking is to set the management guidelines and then follow through with rules,” Fretz said. “If anyone has an issue with how Piha is being managed, they should question and try to influence what the division has set as the management goals for the area.”

Piha is not the only state-owned land of concern to Hakalau. On the north side of the refuge boundary lies upper Laupahoehoe, which also is part of a state-owned forest reserve. Under the draft hunting rules, the same limits apply there as at Piha.


DOFAW administrator Conry was asked what the state had done to promote conservation in the area, which is described on DOFAW management guideline maps as having “considerably disturbed” vegetation. He mentioned that the state had released a biocontrol agent for banana poka in the Piha area a while back. 

“It’s an area we’re definitely interested in making sure we’ve got the watershed protected there and the animals under control,” Conry said in a phone interview. “But if the question is: is it going to be fenced and the animals removed? I don’t know where it is as far as our priorities are concerned.”

With the development of the Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance, Conry added, “we can look forward to additional management efforts there in the future… [and] work toward better landscape-level management. That’s been a model that’s worked across the state.” (The watershed alliance consists of large landowners, both public and private, and was established two years ago. Last month, the state began recruitment for a coordinator who would oversee volunteers in “restoring and monitoring native vegetation and conducting other management activities… [and] in controlling invasive weeds and other threats to watershed and native habitats…”)

Imoto was asked whether anyone had approached him about managing state forest reserve lands in a fashion more compatible with the goals of the neighboring refuge. He responded that he had recently talked about this with refuge manager Jim Kraus, but no one else. “I haven’t discussed it with staff, and don’t know if we’ll consider that or not,” he told Environment Hawai`i


Baron Horiuchi, the refuge’s horticulturist, said he had noticed some of the outplantings damaged by pigs. But, he added, he was also afraid of cattle getting into the refuge. At the height of the recent drought, a bull broke through a refuge fence and knocked down two large `ohi`a trees, he said. “They [the trees] didn’t come back. They’re dead.”

Many of the cattle are descendants of the remnant herd left on by a former lessee on land belonging to the state Department of Hawaiian Homes Lands, which adjoins the refuge on the west and along part of the southern boundary. 

According to a DHHL staffer, before the drought, the wild herd numbered in the thousands. At present, there may be as many as 1,500 head of cattle. In April, a contractor to the agency began to remove the cattle, a process that is estimated to take up to three years.

Once the cattle are gone, however, the DHHL has no plans to put ranchers back on the land. Instead, the DHHL commission has approved what it is calling the `Aina Mauna Legacy Program,
a 100-year plan to restore native forest to some 56,000 acres of land it owns in the area. An environmental assessment for the program is to be released by mid-summer.

* * *

Keeping Pig Numbers in Check

Is an Elusive Target

In sustained yield hunting, says Scott Fretz, “the level of harvest from year to year should remain and some level, and that level should be the maximum or optimal that you can get out of it, without overharvesting so it causes the population to decline.”

And if the hunting effort is not sufficient, he says, “it is probably going to cause damage, especially in Hawaiian ecosystems. Animals are going to overgraze, or they might suffer from malnutrition or dehydration. You’ll see some kind of effects that are undesirable.”

While it is not actively managed, the Piha tract does have pigs. And given studies on the reproduction of wild pigs in Hawai`i, striking a balance between hunting pressure and reproduction would seem to be a difficult task, even with tightly supervised management.

Given the year-round breeding season of pigs in Hawai`i, keeping the population at a constant level requires far more hunting pressure than would appear to be applied at Piha. In 2006, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center and refuge biologists looked at the relative efficiency of hunting and snaring in reducing the pig populations at Hakalau. They found that keeping pigs at a stable number would require taking out 43 percent of the population every year. Anything short of that and the population will increase quickly.

Patricia Tummons

Volume 21, Number 12 — June 2011

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