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30 Nov 06
Nonnative animals flourish in Hawaii
By Tara Godvin, Associated Press Writer
HONOLULU - In Hawaii's warm, moist environment, interlopers have flourished--pillaging forests, screeching through the night in suburban neighborhoods and rooting around in rural taro patches.
Stealthy species such as hybrid Polynesian pigs and a newly discovered gall wasp have eluded eradication efforts and taken hold in an ecosystem that once was home to only one terrestrial mammal--an insectivorous bat.
Partly as a result, Hawaii today has more than 300 endangered and threatened plant and animal species accounting for about a quarter of the United States' protected species.
Some nonnative animals arrived by accident, such as the noisy coqui frog from Puerto Rico. Others--including the Big Island's wild horses and cattle, Molokai's resident goats and Honolulu's feral felines--were either deliberately released for hunting or broke free from residents who had brought them.
Humans have strengthened their defenses, spraying lethal citric acid to kill coqui frogs and setting out traps for pigs in suburban Oahu. One Big Island taro farmer said earlier this year that he shot and killed several wild horses that had damaged his crops.
Hawaii wildlife officials made their own stance clear. On Nov. 6, state-hired hunters shot and killed four dogs believed to have slain at least 113 fledgling wedge-tailed shearwaters inside an Oahu nature reserve.
"Pets that are abandoned or left to run loose in a Hawaiian ecosystem become predators with catastrophic results," said Peter Young, chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
It is a serious issue for the islands, with their isolated environments. There are about 9,975 endemic species, while another 1,100 have disappeared as invasive species showed up, said Earl Campbell, who heads the Invasive Species Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Honolulu.
Native inhabitants have evolved without defenses needed to fend off aggressive attackers and competitors they now face, Campbell said.
Mint in Hawaii is not minty, for example. Nettles do not sting. And unlike their continental cousins, Hawaii's native raspberry does not have prickles--meaning they are not tough enough to withstand foraging by nonnative animals such as pigs.
"If you look at factors that cause problems for species, invasives are important in many places. But here it is the primary reason right now that things are declining," Campbell said.
Not everyone feels the nonnative animals and plans need all be wiped out, though. Of the approximately 5,000 alien species in Hawaii, only about 300-500 have gone on to wreak significant damage, he said.
Some, including plants, are even beneficial. "The term 'invasive species' makes one think that the hordes are at our gates and threatening to destroy life as we know it, when actually the animals who are considered invasive for the most part had no say in coming to Hawaii," said Cathy Goeggel, Animal Rights Hawaii director.
She suggested that some harmful animals could be fenced out or relocated, such as rooting pigs.
At the center of it all are people who need to recognize their mistakes and think more about how to make things better, said Christy Martin, spokeswoman for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, a partnership that brings together a long list of federal, state and private agencies.
"There's definitely a disconnect between caring for animals and setting up cat-feeding stations, and protecting the ones that are native, that are supposed to be there, that need our help definitely more than the cats do," Martin said.
There are programs and rules to keep potentially invasive animals out of the islands. But there is nothing comparable to keep potentially invasive plants from being imported and planted in Hawaiian gardens.
It would be too difficult, costly and controversial to eliminate established invasive animals, such as pigs and goats, which live in hard-to-reach places and are hunted by some poorer residents to feed their families.
Efforts now are concentrated on controlling the old invasive species, fighting off the newer ones, keeping the would-be problems out and continuing to educate the public.
The first animals introduced by people were rats, which arrived first with Polynesians' voyaging canoes. Quick-spreading haole koa was planted in the 1980s to provide fodder for cattle in the islands, Martin said.
"If only we'd chosen better. And we say that again and again," she said.
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