By Alan D. McNarie
The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to make it easier for federal and state officials to kill barn owls and egrets.
The federal agency has proposed issuing a “control order” allowing officials from ten federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Defense, the National Park Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Hawaii Departments of Agriculture and of Lands and Natural Resources, to shoot, trap, asphyxiate, break the necks of, or destroy the nests and eggs of egrets and owls within the main and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The order would not allow unauthorized private individuals to kill owls or egrets. The proposed new rule is currently under consideration; the public can comment at http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FWS-HQ-MB-2013-0070.
Currently, the two species cannot be killed without a special permit. But wildlife officials at both the state and federal level argue that both species are introduced and invasive in Hawaii, that they can pose a threat to airplanes taking off from local airports and that they have been known to prey on endangered native species. The new order would allow them to act immediately if humans or endangered species are at risk rather than wait for an order to be issued.
The proposed order has drawn fire from some local animal lovers, who point out that both species were introduced into the islands in the 1950s to combat other invasives: the barn owl to combat rodents in cane, and the egrets to combat horn flies on cattle. But the Environmental Assessment for the proposed order maintains that “No measurable decline in rodent or horn fly populations has been associated with cattle egret or barn owl populations.”
Both introduced birds have thrived in the main islands and are pushing their territories into the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. “Both cattle egrets and barn owls have been documented to prey upon native species, including waterbird and seabird species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” the EA states. Among the birds that have been preyed upon—mainly chicks or exhausted migratory birds–by one or both of the two invaders are `ua`u kani (wedge-tailed shearwaters, `a`o (Newell’s shearwaters), koloa (Hawaiian ducks), `ala eke`oke`o (Hawaiian coots), `alae `ula (common moorhen), ae`o (black-necked stilts) and pu`eo (Hawaiian owl).
Among the proposed order’s most vociferous critics is Syd Singer, who’s also fought control programs for such species as coqui frogs, feral pigs and strawberry guava. He’s fired off a barrage of op-ed pieces and letters to the editor in at least a dozen publications and Web sites.
“To their credit, the agencies responsible for wildlife control have tried non-lethal methods to chase away the egrets and owls, but the birds returned,” he wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post. “Apparently out of non-cruel options, the government is mandating ‘the final solution.’ State and federal agencies will be ordered to eradicate these birds from Hawaii. Hawaiian native birds are already struggling with lost habitat, climate change, pollution, disease, and predation by rats, mongooses, cats, and dogs. Killing owls and egrets will probably be too little, too late. But that won’t stop the mass killings.”
But the federal and state officials that the Chronicle reached maintained that the goal of new rule was a “control,” not extermination.
“It is not an eradication order,” stated wildlife biologist Hans Sin of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
“The purpose of the control order is to control damage from these invasive species. It’s not to eradicate them,” said Jenny Hoskins, who prepared the Environmental Assessment for the proposed order.
On the other hand, there’s nothing in the order itself that says extermination won’t be the goal. The current language sets no take limits or geographic boundaries within the state or the Northwest Hawaiian Islands; it basically gives the designated officials a license to kill as many barn owls and egrets as they choose.
“We haven’t put an upper limit on how many birds we’re going to take because we haven’t set that number yet,” said Hoskins.
That’s not the only vagary that troubles the critics. The Environmental Assessment states that egrets and owls have preyed on endangered species, and cites examples “At the Nu‘u Pond, wildlife managers have observed cattle egrets leaving a nearby rookery tree (up to 700 cattle egret nests in 2 trees at the pond’s edge), flying to the pond and capturing Hawaiian coot or ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (Fulica alai) chicks and consuming them. In upland areas of L?na‘i, cattle egret predation on chicks of the Hawaiian short-eared owl, or pueo (Asio flammeus sandwicensis) has been documented….” But no rates of predation or numbers of incidents are given. With barn owls, especially, there’s a question of how frequently the owls actually prey on birds. In their native habitats, they’re known for feeding chiefly on rodents and insects. The Environmental assessment notes one documented instance of an owl preying on a honeycreeper in Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, and notes that the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife had “annually collect carcasses of adult Hawaiian petrels depredated by barn owls on L?na‘i … and DOFAW personnel on Moloka‘i have documented numerous instances of barn owl predation on Hawaiian stilts.” But again, there are no solid statistics given.
The EA also concedes that a study of stomach contents of 70 barn owls shot around Lihue Airport on Kauai “indicated a large number of crickets and grasshoppers in the diet; however, it has yet to be determined if these insects are indeed common or preferred prey.” But that study corroborates the experience of Big Island veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator Shannon Nakaya.
“I’m sure that if pushed to starvation , it’s possible a barn owl will eat another bird….but in the barn owls I’ve autopsied, I’ve never found it’s ingested a bird,” Nakaya told the Chronicle. “I’ve found roaches and rodents. And we’ve got no shortage of roaches and rodents on this island.”
It may well be that some populations of egrets and owls have learned to prey on native birds, while others stick to more conventional diets. If owls settle permanently on Midway or Laysan, for instance, they may find birds a more reliable food source than rats or roaches.
“We know that the populations on different island are very, very different The Big Island is the only island in the state with an i’o population. When you make a blanket rule on the state or federal level, I don’t think we know what the impact is going to be, or how necessary it is in the different areas,” believes Nakaya. She suggests that the officials take a look at Alaska’s wolf management plan, where individual boards tailor wolf control programs to specific areas of the state.
What is known is that on some occasions, owls and egrets prey on endangered native birds. What is not known is how big an impact owls and egrets have or how widespread this predatory behavior is. If the proposed order is implemented, then how well those gaps in knowledge are filled in, and how intelligently state and federal officials use that knowledge, may determine whether the proposed order is an intelligent targeting of problem birds or a general slaughter.
“If we target just those egrets and barn owls that are preying on the native water birds in HI, it will not have a significant impact on the worldwide populations of them [owls and egrets],” Hoskins believes. “But it will have a significant positive impact on the endangered species that they’re preying upon.”
(Alan McNarie has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.)