WASHINGTON — Jan. 2 was supposed to be a big day for the Hawaiian hawk, or ‘io.
That’s when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced a final rule that would remove the hawk — a symbol of Hawaiian royalty — from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.
According to the agency, studies had shown the hawk’s population had stabilized at around 3,000 individuals on the Big Island and that it was “no longer at risk of extinction, now or in the foreseeable future.”
Such news is typically greeted as a cause for celebration.
For instance, when the agency announced in December that the nene, Hawaii’s state bird, was being downlisted from endangered to threatened, the Center for Biological Diversity proclaimed the nene a “recovery success story.”
Not so for the ‘io, said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director.
“When species are delisted and we think it’s justified we celebrate that fact,” Greenwald said. “I think the Trump administration’s move to delist the Hawaiian hawk is deregulatory overreach.”
Rolling back environmental regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act, has been a top priority for President Donald Trump during his first term in office.
For instance, the administration announced new rules in August that will make it harder for agencies to analyze the threats from climate change when considering future protections for wildlife.
Those rules also force agencies to weigh economic interests against those of saving a species. The administration has also sought to strip numerous species, such as the gray wolf and grizzly bear, of their federal protections.
In the case of the ‘io, the administration pushed to have the hawk completely removed from the list rather than downgraded from endangered to threatened despite concerns that no comprehensive population studies have been performed in more than a decade.
“This administration has made it abundantly clear that they’re hostile to environmental regulation,” Greenwald said. “They’ve listed the fewest species of any administration since the Endangered Species Act was passed.”
Always On The Defensive
The fight over the Hawaiian hawk began decades before Trump was elected, and spanned several administrations.
The hawk, which is endemic to Hawaii, was first listed as endangered in 1967. While it used to roam much of the archipelago it is now only found on the Big Island.
In 1997, an organization known as the National Wilderness Institute petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove the hawk from the endangered species list.
But despite its name, the institute, which no longer exists, was anything but a conservation organization. It was formed as part of the so-called wise-use movement that sought to undermine environmental regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act.
On Feb. 3 — in just three weeks — the ‘io for the first time in 50 years will no longer be listed as endangered.
One of its co-founders, Robert Gordon, has continued that fight, and has worked at various politically conservative organizations, including the Heritage Foundation, where he recently wrote that numerous species, including the Hawaiian hawk, were listed as endangered due to “erroneous data.”
According to the federal record, Fish & Wildlife told the National Wilderness Institute it wouldn’t take up the petition because it had “higher priority listing and delisting actions.”
In 2008, while George W. Bush was in the White House, the agency resurrected the institute’s request and proposed a rule to remove the Hawaiian hawk from the endangered species list.
The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed the action.
Rene Siracusa, of Malama o Puna, an environmental nonprofit on Hawaii’s Big Island, submitted public testimony pleading with Fish & Wildlife to keep the hawk’s endangered status.
Siracusa said she kept a log of ‘io sightings and “hearings,” and that over the years her entries became increasingly infrequent.
She discussed population growth in Puna and deforestation that took away the bird’s nesting grounds. She pointed out that the bird is only found on the Big Island whereas before its historical range encompassed all the major islands in the archipelago, even as far off as Kauai.
Just as important, she said, is the ‘io’s meaning to local culture.
“In native Hawaiian cultural and religious beliefs, certain animals have special relationships with certain families — they are aumakua. The ‘Io is one of these,” Siracusa said.
“To delist the ‘Io so that some gun-toting honcho can shoot it down with impunity is one more insult to the Hawaiian people who have already suffered more than their share of insensitivity, brutality, disenfranchisement and disentitlement at the hands of the dominant Western culture and its representing government.”
Clyde Namuo, who was the administrator of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs at the time, offered similar, if more measured, comments.
He said the ‘io was “hovering on the brink of existence,” living on a single island where a single catastrophic event, such as a hurricane or the introduction of a new predator, could hurt the entire species.
“‘Io remind us of royalty, symbols of charismatic grace and tangible strength,” Namuo said. “The ali’i who we identified with the ‘Io and who guided Hawai’i bestowed upon our palace the namesake of ‘Iolani.”
“For us,” Namuo added, “this proposal holds a deep significance that vibrates with a sensitive history recounting time and again our lost resources and, therefore, identity.”
Delisting the Hawaiian hawk went through another series of fits and starts after Barack Obama, a Democrat, was elected. The Fish & Wildlife Service opened up the delisting proposal to public comment in 2009 and 2014.
A new concern in 2014 was climate change, and, more specifically, the encroachment of invasive strawberry guava into the hawk’s habitat when temperatures rose.
As strawberry guava spreads, Fish & Wildlife officials said, it forms “impenetrable groves of close standing trees” which makes it nearly impossible for the hawk to hunt its prey because there’s not enough room to spread its wings.
Again, the majority of comments opposed delisting the Hawaiian hawk.
A Decision Despite Data Dearth
When the Trump administration announced in October 2018 that it wanted to remove the Hawaiian hawk from its list of threatened and endangered species the plan was met with skepticism, particularly from the state of Hawaii.
Suzanne Case, who heads the Department of Land and Natural Resources, submitted public testimony questioning the wisdom of delisting the ‘io completely, saying it seemed “premature.”
For one, she said, the population study the Fish & Wildlife Service relied upon to make its assessment was completed in 2007, and in need of an update.
The ‘io faces a number of new and existing threats, she said, including climate change and the loss of critical habitat. The proliferation of rapid ohia death on the Big Island is decimating the bird’s preferred nesting sites. Other threats include humans, hurricanes and lava flows.
Case advocated for a new population study and a “step-wise” approach to delisting the Hawaiian hawk by first downgrading it from endangered to threatened. Her concerns, like those of others opposed to the delisting, didn’t have the desired effect.
The Fish & Wildlife Service published its final rule on Jan. 2, and on Feb. 3 — in just three weeks — the ‘io for the first time in 50 years will no longer be listed as endangered.
“We don’t see this delisting as a victory for the Endangered Species Act, as was exemplified with the nene,” Case said in an interview. “We were cautious about making sure the ‘io population remains stable, and we really need to have better data to have a good assessment.”
She added that the Hawaiian hawk is still protected under state law and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Gregory Koob is a deputy field supervisor who oversees the Hawaiian hawk recovery program for the Fish & Wildlife Service office in Honolulu.
He said the agency relied on the decade-old population study because that’s what was available at the time, and no one provided any new numbers that invalidated those estimates.
“We use the best available data that we have available to us,” Koob said. “We didn’t get any new information during the public comment period so we took that as being the best available.”
His agency focused on the possible threats to the ‘io, and whether those were credible enough to warrant further federal protection. He then summarized the agency’s stance on issues such as the ‘io’s shrunken range, the effects of climate change and the loss of native trees.
“Yes, the hawk is limited to one island, but it’s a large island so if something like a hurricane comes along it’s not going to hit the whole island,” Koob said.
“We don’t know what’s actually going to happen with climate change, but we have observed over the years that the hawk has adapted to agricultural forests, orchards, rangeland and pastureland as well as to the native forests.”
Koob added that Fish & Wildlife will continue to track the Hawaiian hawk in conjunction with the state, so if there are any dips in the population the agency can reassess its status.
“We do have a post-delisting monitoring plan so we’re not just ignoring the species,” he said.