Pigs Undermine Progress in Restoring Native Bird Habitat at Hakalau Refuge

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At Hakalau, the pigs are back.

In 2004 and 2005, surveys of the fenced management units at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, on the windward slopes of Mauna Kea, showed that six of the eight fenced management units were pig-free and the remaining two were nearly so. Five years later, the most recent survey of invasive species in the fenced units surrounding some 14,000 acres on the higher elevations of the 32,733-acre Hakalau forest unit of the refuge found signs of pig activity nearly everywhere surveyors looked.

“The current distribution of feral pigs is widespread across the refuge,” wrote the team that conducted the survey last November. It found “significantly high feral pig populations within all previously ungulate-free units.”

“During this survey,” the authors continued, “out-planted endangered plants were seen rooted up and trampled by pigs. Other native plants, ferns in particular, beginning to re-establish in the understory, were also destroyed. Feral pigs also provide a means of dispersal of some of the weed species” that were also evaluated in the survey report.

What happened?

Two Steps Back

Taking out the pigs in the first place was nothing short of a herculean effort. Fencing the management units took years. Then came the daunting task of removing feral cattle and pigs from the fenced areas. As the animals left, the native forest began to reclaim the land damaged by 150 years of grazing. Helping it along was the backbreaking toil of thousands of volunteers and refuge staff who, over the last two decades, planted some 400,000 koa seedlings in the former pasture land. Today the young trees are flourishing and many of Hakalau’s native bird species, including some that are federally listed as endangered, are moving upslope to areas that had not seen forest birds for decades.

Some 43 miles of ungulate-proof fence enclose the upper 14,150 acres of the Hakalau forest refuge and divide it into eight management units. These range in size from the largest, at 5,000 acres (Shipman, which includes the most of the refuge outbuildings and greenhouse), to the smallest (Middle Honohina, at 550 acres, and Pua Akala, at 500). Middle Honohina was the first to be declared pig-free – in 1989, just four years after the refuge was established.

Once the fences are up, they require constant maintenance. Tree-falls, vandalism, and corrosion can cause breaches in the fence. During the recent drought affecting broad swaths of the Big Island, feral cattle from former ranches on neighboring Department of Hawaiian Home Lands were breaking through the fences in search of lush vegetation and water.

But after 2005, refuge staff and management were preoccupied with tasks other than fence patrols and maintenance, snaring, and the rest of the activities essential to keeping the management units pig-free. 

Interviews with former and current staff suggest a number of factors that tended to relegate ungulate control to the back burner:


•Management of the Kona unit of the Hakalau refuge. This 5,300-acre unit on the leeward slope of Mauna Loa was acquired in 1997 as a promising release site for captive-reared `alala. However, litigation over access to the site lasted until 2005, by which time the Kona unit staff had been reassigned elsewhere within the Fish and Wildlife Service and funds for fencing had been lost. Using Hilo-based staff to work in the Kona unit has taken significant personnel resources away from the Hakalau forest.


•Developing a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). Starting in 2007, refuge management – under strict orders from national Fish and Wildlife Service administration – had to devote considerable effort to preparing a 15-year plan for the refuge. This three-year project, mandated by Congress, also took time and energy that otherwise would have been spent in the field. Kraus estimates that roughly three-quarters of his time in his first two years on the job was spent on this effort.


•Loss of key people. Dick Wass, who had been manager of the refuge since its establishment, and Jack Jeffrey, its biologist whose remarkable bird photographs have given Hakalau’s small feathered inhabitants much-deserved fame nationally and internationally, both retired in 2008.


•Difficulty in retaining staff. Current refuge manager Jim Kraus says high staff turnover has made running the refuge much more difficult. Field crew are no sooner trained than they quit; a biologist hired to replace Jeffrey left within a year; a replacement (from Alaska) is scheduled to come on board this month. Kraus says that of the eight people he’s hired, “only two are still here.”


•Addressing charges of mismanagement brought by a University of Hawai`i scientist. These charges, having to do with protection of the Hawai`i `akepa (Loxops coccineus coccineus), a critically endangered bird, resulted in a three-day workshop in 2008 involving top ornithologists from around the country who closely scrutinized the priorities and conduct of refuge staff.

“What we’re doing now is triage,” Kraus told Environment Hawai`i. He acknowledged that the refuge now has a huge pig problem, but said that the field crew is getting aggressive about knocking down their numbers. On a recent tour of the refuge, Kraus pointed out a recently established pig trap – a baited corral, essentially – that staff had set up in the Shipman unit. Only moments before arriving at the trap, Kraus caught a fleeting glimpse of a trio of black pigs running up a grassy hill and into the forest cover.

“Hakalau is a habitat island under assault,” Kraus says, ”by mammals and plants and insects.”

See No Evil…

One management element that became a casualty of stresses on refuge resources was the periodic survey of pig activity, as indicated by scat, wallows, digging, sightings, and the like. These surveys had been conducted each year from 1997 to 2005 and were fairly rigorous, following a set of established transects that ran the length of the refuge’s fenced units. They were useful in helping refuge staff direct their efforts to potential problem areas but were suspended for five years.

No one seems to recall exactly why. According to one person interviewed (who did not want to be publicly identified), the refuge administration asked that teams conducting annual bird surveys at Hakalau also note the presence of pig sign wherever they happened to see it. But with surveyors’ eyes scouring the treetops for birds, their reports of pig sign were sketchy and no substitute for the rigorous pig surveys that had been done in the past.

Reports of staff efforts to control pigs, obtained through a federal Freedom of Information Act, suggest that field crews spent very few days in pig-control efforts in recent years. In the Upper Honohina unit, for example (Unit 5 on refuge maps), from March 2009 to March 2011, just 2.5 person-days were spent controlling pigs (eight pigs were caught in this period – seven in September 2010 alone). In the Upper Maulua unit (Unit 4), 10 snares were set from November 2005 to April 2011, an effort requiring nine person-days and yielding 13 pigs. (Again, eight of those pigs were caught in one month alone – February of this year.) In all of 2006, 2008, and 2009, there was no effort at all reported on pig snaring in this area.

By 2008, says Jeffrey, pigs were seen in the Middle Honohina unit, which had been pig-free for nearly 20 years. This was despite the fact that, according to refuge records, field crews had given this unit a disproportionate share of their attention: more than 27 person days between 2006 and April 2011, resulting in the catch of 53 pigs.

All totaled, from the records provided to Environment Hawai`i, it seems that refuge staff spent about 163 person-days from 1998 to 2011 devoted to pig-reduction efforts.

In addition to the efforts of refuge staff, there
has been the work of a contractor, paid to patrol the three makai units of the refuge. The initial contract began in 2007 and has been extended multiple times. It now runs through October 31 of this year. 

When that contract expires, “our intent is to set up a new contract,” says Kraus. “We’re at the end of the string with that one, and we want to expand on it as well.”

The Plan

Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service made public the 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan for Hakalau, the product of three years of intensive effort by refuge staff. As described in the 559-page document, a fundamental “common feature” to each task in the CCP is the construction of “ungulate-proof boundary fencing and sequence of management actions.”

“Establishing perimeter boundary fencing is a critical first step in habitat protection and restoration to deter major threats to the ecosystem and their impacts to wildlife population and species recovery,” the plan states. “Once fences are established, the standard management strategy sequence would be to remove ungulates, then concentrate on invasive species control … while simultaneously restoring habitat through native plant outplantings.”

Readers of the plan might be forgiven for thinking that for the upper areas of Hakalau, these tasks have already been ticked off the to-do list. “Most of the fenced portions of the HFU [Hakalau Forest Unit] are pig free,” the plan states, relying evidently on the 2004 and 2005 surveys of pig activity within the fenced management units, which were the most recent surveys available during the years in which the plan was being prepared.

No one associated with the refuge, however, is defending that characterization these days. In last month’s press release announcing the availability of the plan, Kraus is quoted as saying, “Refuge staff and volunteers are rightfully concerned that our efforts to re-establish our rare native plant heritage and maintain healthy populations of birds are at risk from pigs that have slowly regained entry to the refuge. I hope this plan will help us overcome the challenges we face, but we will need continued public and partner support to get the job done.”

In an interview with Environment Hawai`i, Kraus said that it will take “serious mobilization … to resolve the pig situation. Half the battle is making people aware.”

Don Palawski, to whom Kraus reports in Honolulu, stressed that no one was attempting to paper over the hard truth. “We want to let people know of the problem” of the pigs’ return, he said, especially within the service itself.

But whether the resources needed to repair existing fences, build new ones, and remove and keep out the damaging wild pigs and cattle will be available is a huge question.

According to the plan, just to meet current management tasks, the refuge staff, now numbering seven, will need to be increased to 15. To meet all the challenges identified in the CCP, staff will need to be increased to 26, including six workers – three field crew, one park ranger/volunteer coordinator, a wildlife biologist, and a law enforcement officer – assigned to the Kona unit of the refuge.

Last year (federal fiscal year 2010), the total budget for the refuge was $1.1 million, covering seven full-time employees and five so-called term employees (workers who are hired for a defined term and who do not enjoy civil service protection). “If there’s no significant injection of funds on a substantial level,” Kraus says, “we can’t hold our own.”

Given the impasse over spending in Washington, however, the entire refuge system still has no budget for the current fiscal year, which will end September 30. “We’re in a wait-and-see mode,” says Palawski. But, he adds, “we’re going to get whatever we can to do the fences and maintain them.” Finding the funds, however, “is a very serious problem.”

Keeping the refuge going, says Kraus, is “kind of like being in a leaky boat that just keeps springing more leaks…. I’m really concerned about it as a manager, because the investment made is definitely at risk.”

For Further Reading

Since 1997, Environment Hawai`i has reported on events and issues at the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Selected articles include:


“At Hakalau, Hunter Pressure Overrides Conservationists’ Concerns,” November 1997;

• “Emma’s Column: From Desolation to Forest,” July 2000;

• “Jack Jeffrey: Love for Birds Inspires his Art,” July 2002;

• “Government Pays $8 Million for Refuge, but Has No Legal Access,” October 2003;

• “Ranchers Press Federal Government to Pay to Move Junk, Wild Cattle Off Refuge,” November 2003;

• “Whatever Happened to … the South Kona Refuge? Site Is Still Off-Limits to Fish and Wildlife Service,” October 2004;

• “Eight Years after Purchasing Land, Federal Government Finally Gains Access,” April 2005;

• “On the Trail of the Moa Nalo,” February 2006;

• “UH Professor Takes Long-Running Feud with Feds into Court of Public Opinion,” November 2009.

Also of interest:

• The Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan, available online at: http://www.fws.gov/hakalauforest/planning.html

• “Efficacy of Feral Pig Removals at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, Hawai`i,” by Hess et al., published in Transactions of the Western Section of the Wildlife Society, 2006. A pdf of this article is available through a link in the EH-xtra section of our home page.

Patricia Tummons

Volume 21, Number 12 — June 2011

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