Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hawai'i'is BioInvasion III: Pu'u Wa'awa'a and the Ungulate Alliances

(This series first appeared in HIJ in 2001)

To understand the battle over Pu`u Wa`awa`a, one might find it useful to understand the tumblebug.

Tumblebugs, also called scarabs or dung beetles, raise their larvae in cattle dung, which they cut from fresh cow patties and shape into small, very-nearly-perfect spheres. They can often be seen at work in this island’s upland pastures—one beetle beneath the ball, kicking, and another riding atop it like a circus acrobat—rolling their prize precariously off to some scarab hatchery site.

Tumblebugs aren’t native to Hawai`i, and no one knows how they got here, but it’s quite obvious why they’re here. Tumblebugs are evolved to go with grazing animals. They help disperse cattle manure, which feeds the grass that the cattle eat. They’re part of a vast and powerful coalition of creatures: the rangeland ecosystem. They’re here because they’re useful to the other members of this coalition, and the other creatures are useful to them.

Of over 4,000 alien species introduced to the Hawaiian Islands since the coming of humans, the vast majority probably are here because another species—usually humans—found them useful, or at least decorative. They formed alliances.

But sometimes alliances shift. Once here, species from chameleons to kahili ginger have quickly found that they didn’t need us anymore, and we found that we didn’t need so many of them. But it’s almost impossible to find a species that some human doesn’t still value. Even campaigns to control coqui frogs and miconia have met with opposition.

Nowhere is this conflict clearer than when ungulates—hooved animals—are involved. Ever since Hawaiians arrived with pigs in their sailing canoes, ungulates have thrived on this island with the active aid of human beings. And the animals themselves have found other allies. Guava, for instance, found feral pigs even more useful than humans for disseminating their seed over huge areas. With guavas and a huge array of other foods available, pigs don’t particularly need humans, though some humans have continued to find pigs useful.

But native Hawaiian ecosystems had evolved without grazing animals, and weren’t prepared to fend off those devastating coalitions. Huge areas of the island have been transformed from native forests into rangeland, and some of the remaining forests have been ravaged by overpopulations of pigs and pig-assisted plant invaders. People who found the native forests pleasing and useful began forming alliances to save it. And the human allies of pigs and cattle and sheep felt threatened.

Coalitions Collide at Pu'u Wa'awa'a

Which brings us to Pu`u Wa`awa`a, a huge tract of state-controlled land in North Kona above Kiholo. For decades, much of the area has been leased as ranch land. But it also holds, by some counts, at least 22 endangered plant and animal species.

On Friday, November 16, the State Board of Land and Natural Resources heard arguments for two competing management plans for Pu`u Wa`awa`a Ranch. One plan was put forth by a Ka`Ahahui o Pu`u Wa`awa`a, a non-profit formed by a coalition of conservationist and native Hawaiian groups, including The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, Hui`Ohana Mai Pu`uanahulu a me Pu`u Wa`awa`a, Tropical Reforestation and Ecosystem Education Center (TREE), and the Hawai‘i Ecosystems Project of the U.S. Forest Service and Stanford University. In testimony, the proposal also got backing from a roll call of environmental organizations, including the state and local Sierra Club, as well as several wildlife biologists and members of some kama`aina and native Hawaiian families who had been working with the Ka `Alahui in the project’s planning stage.

The competing proposal was advanced by a group called the Wildlife Conservation Association of Hawaii (WCAOH), whose “cooperating organizations” include current leaseholder Pu`uwa`awa`a Cattle Company as well as Summit Hawaii, Inc. (a public relations firm), Pig Hunters of Hawaii, Big Island Bird Hunters, the Hualalai Archery Club and the Volcano Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Nearly all of the testimony in support of the WCOAH plan came from ranchers and hunters.

Both groups claim to be conservationists. Both would encourage game hunting as a “management tool” and allow continued ranching on the property. But the two plans also differ substantially, both in philosophy and in practice. Ka `Ahahui o Pu`uwa`awa`a’s plan would attempt to reinstate ahupua`a management—the traditional Hawaiian style of land use, which takes a roughly pie-piece shaped slice of the island and manages upland, lowland and ocean resources as an interactive whole. The plan would strongly encourage ecotourism and educational uses, and would emphasize large-scale restoration of native forests. The WCAOH seeks only the upland section of the property, where ranching is viable, and would subcontract the management of the parcel back to the Pu`uwa`awa`a Cattle Company. .

The Ka `Alahui plan would cut the cattle herd approximately in half, and attempt to fence some critical habitat. The WCAOH plan would maintain a larger herd.

Integral to the two groups’ plans are very different views on the roll of hooved animals in the land’s health. One group essentially views ungulates as a major part of the problem. The other portrays them as a major part of the solution.

The Fire Fight

Ka `Alahui’s plan seems to reflect a philosophy similar to those practiced in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park and the Hakalau National Forest Bird Sanctuary. Though it recognizes the value of cattle in controlling some invasive plant species, and even in reducing the amount of grass for fire control purposes, it essentially regards the coalition of grazers and grass as alien invaders.

“Extensive areas of dry and mesic forests have been altered by human activity all around the state and the world,” the proposal states. “The combination of ungulate grazing, grass invasion, and fire poses a triple threat to these areas; forests will not recover while they are being grazed at commercially viable rates, but the removal of grazing allows grass biomass to accumulate and greatly enhances the likelihood and severity of fire. Fire in turn further encourages grass growth and can inhibit forest regrowth. Grazing/grass/fire interaction is a globally significant threat to biological diversity, and it represents the most substantial challenge to the restoration of Hawaiian forests.”

The WCAOH plan, on the other hand, sees cattle and sheep as essential to fire control.

“We are...acutely aware that if the ranching partners who know this land so well are unable to maintain a viable operation, all the other goals may fail due to lack of well-managed fire control through grazing,” the plan maintains. “Grazing is well recognized by laymen and scientific individuals alike as the primary means of fire control in a very dry area such as this.”

But some biologists question whether ungulates actually work for fire control—and point out that deforestation for pastureland may be one reason the land is drying out.

Among them are Jim Jacobi and Rick Warshauer of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Biological Service, whose studies provide data that state and federal agencies use for wildlife management.

“Ungulates have caused the reduction and elimination of native woody and herbaceous vegetation, which result in the drying of the landscape and the spread of alien grasses, both of which foster fire,” maintains Warshauer.

Jacobi agrees: He notes that fires are more common in grasslands than in forests, because forests retain more moisture and shade out flammable grass species. Grazing doesn’t prevent fires, he believes, “unless the ungulates have reduced it down to dust, pretty much, and that’s not good grazing.”

He cites a recent fire at Pu`u Loa, on the southeast side of Mauna Kea, as an example.

“This was an area that was heavily grazed down to very short grass,” he notes. “It [the fire] carried even on the places that it was basically eaten really down to nothing.... The problem is, dry areas will burn. The solution is to reduce the opportunities for fires to start and to have the means to put them out quickly.”

The WCAOH cites past fire history, including a fire in an area called the Kiholo-3 paddock, which was kept free of cattle for six years. “Then a fire reached the area and destroyed it so any restoration was in vain,” states the proposal.

But biologists note that forest restoration requires a much longer time frame than six years, especially in dry areas where trees grow slowly.

“It’s a fiction,” says Warshauer, of the idea works as a method of fire control. “It’s often used to justify grazing where alternative land uses have been proposed.”

Different Ungulates, Different Roles

Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a is a near-perfect microcosm of larger battle over ungulates that is going on all over the island. The parcel holds all three of the most common ungulates: sheep, cattle and pigs. In their normal habitats, each plays occupies a different niche. Cattle normally subsist mainly on grass. Sheep are browsers that often serve as the shock troops for advancing rangeland, by clearing brush and trees that would otherwise shade out the grasses. Pigs are omnivorous grubbers, rooting through the soil for roots and worms, but also opportunistically eating just about anything else that comes their way.

Environmentalists say evidence is overwhelming that all three ungulates contribute heavily to the decline of native forests. But some hunters and ranchers claim differently.

“Basically, there’s a preservation environmental side that says all ungulates are alien species and should be eradicated,” says hunting advocate Bob Duerr. But he notes a lack of studies on the possible benefits that game animals cause for the local environment. “The problem’s not a public wildlife official...who says, ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s take a scientific peer review, and let’s take a look at the positive aspects of pigs in the forest.”

When questioned, wildlife managers and biologists often say that they’re happy to listen to hunters, and value hunters’ experience with the land. The problem is that some the hunters’ claims just don’t seem to match the data already coming in from the field.

Sheep vs. Mamane

For instance, feral sheep and Mouflon sheep—and hybrids, since the two interbreed freely—have long been attacked by conservationists, especially for the damage they have done to upland dry forests such as the mamane forests of Mauna Kea. Since the late 1970s, under a court order obtained by conservation groups, the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) as mounted a so-far-unsuccessful effort to eradicate feral sheep on Mauna Kea.

“They’ve shot most of the animals they’ve seen. But twice a year, they go out and shoot similar numbers to what they shot before,” observes NBS biologist Paul Banko, who studies populations of palila, an endangered bird that feeds mainly on mamane seeds in the upland dry forests. He admits that his studies aren’t designed to document the damage that the sheep have been doing to the mamane forest, because “their effects on the habitat has been thoroughly documented for years.”

But WCOAH founder Lloyd Case claims disagrees with that conventional wisdom. “It’s all documented that palila use the wool from the sheep to line their nest,” he notes, for example. “No there’s no more sheep, so more of the young birds will die.”

Warshauer and Jacobi scoff at the notion that sheep are vital to palila fledglings: “What did they do before the sheep got there?” asks Warshauer.

“Naturally they [palila] use lichens,” says Jacobi. “In all the nest studies, there’s been a very limited use of sheep wool. It’s a not a major component of the nest.”

Case also maintains that the sheep benefit the mamane by pruning them back. “If the sheep browse them and keep them clean, you get better growth,” he maintains. “The mamane seeds stick in the wool and they spread them around.”

The biologists shake their heads at that claim. To them, it contradicts not only overwhelming evidence on the ground, but also the vast weight of evolutionary history. “Grazing by ungulates is really a severe trauma,” says Warshauer. “The native plants evolved in the absence of anything larger than a few flightless birds.”

Biologists note the structure of grass, for instance, which evolved under the constant pressure of grazing animals. The stems are jointed, so the tops break off before the plant is pulled up by the roots. The roots form a tough, dense, interlocking mat, so they’re hard to pull up. Many grasses spread by runners when grazers are present; when the herds are away, they take advantage of that absence to send up seed heads with millions of seeds, designed to stick to the grazer’s hair and “hitchhike” when the grazers return.

Native plants, which evolved without plant-eating mammals, lack these adaptations. They have no thorns, no chemicals that make them taste bad. When cattle and sheep were introduced, they ate the local plants like ice cream. The result was natural selection in favor of the grazing-adapted invaders. In many places, the only survivors were mature trees whose whose branches grew out of reach. Smaller trees such as mamane (Sophora Chrysophylla) were especially hard-hit.

After DOFAW began sheep eradication on Mauna Kea, scientists such as Banko and Jabobi saw signs that the mamane forest was starting to recover. Banko notes that in the upland Mauna Kea Forest Reserve now, “About one of three mamane trees is less than 20 years old. That’s actually a fairly significant response of the forest.”

Case maintains that the explosive growth of grass in turn provides excellent cover for rats, which eat bird eggs and nestlings. But the wildife researchers argue that all three invaders—rats, grass, and ungulates, are problems must be dealt with, piece by piece.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that the best solution is to bring back the original problem,” says Banko.

The Bond Between Hunter and Hunted

An even more emotional issue than cattle and sheep are feral pigs. The handbook Hawai’i’s Invasive Species calls pigs “the number one economic threat to watersheds, damaging the islands’ freshwater sources.” In addition to spreading weed species; pigs root up native vegetation and hollow out fern logs, creating places where water can collect and breed avian-malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Despite all this, some hunters claim they’re good for the forest.

Case maintains that where he finds the most birds is also where he finds the most pigs. “They (scientists) don’t realize that the more you kill our animals, the more the birds move,” he claims. “They get their minerals and stuff from the ground. The pigs root the ground up for them.”

But biologists point out, again, that native birds somehow solved the problem of getting minerals long before the first pigs arrived with the Polynesians. And they point to dramatic recovery of the forest undergrowth in areas where fences have been fenced out—the rainforest around Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, for instance.

They also note the pigs’ potential for explosive population growth. Where reproduction is concerned, pigs are more like rodents than other ungulates. Each sow is capable of suckling up to twelve piglets at a time, which means that without considerable hunting pressure, a forest can be rapidly overrun.

Complicating the issue of pig control are some very deep emotional bonds. Pigs are entwined in native Hawaiian mythology; a pig god was both Madame Pele’s consort and chief rival. For native Hawaiian culture, pigs were the only ungulate, a vital source of animal meat in a protein-scarce environment.

For some local hunters, they still are.

“When our economy goes down, we live off the land,” maintains Case. “And now, more than ever, we turn back to the land. These animals right now are worth more to us. They’re our money in the bank.... When I never had [a] job, these animals fed my family.”

Decisions for the Top Predators

That history was very much in the minds of hunters and ranchers at the November 16 hearing. They repeatedly testified about the importance of preserving “our way of life.” But Ka `Ahahui supporters countered that many of their members were also from kama`aina families—and that for generations, ranchers and hunters had been virtually the sole users of much of the ahupua`a, and that for most of that period, the forest had degraded.

A DOFAW staff report recommended that the Ka `Ahahui proposal be adopted, with some changes—partly because Ka `Ahahui already had considerable grant funding in place. But after a day of testimony and two failed amendments, the Board adjourned without a resolution on the issue—sending both sides back to beef up their plans for another round.

But what both sides, and all island residents, will also have to cope with is the essential imbalance that humans and their biological allies have created. The range ecosystem and the pigs are designed to be kept in check by predators such as wolf packs and mountain lions. Without a top predator, the ungulate populations run amok. Without ungulates, the grasses run amok. The only top predator on this island is us. Until humans figure out how to responsibly manage that role—whether by hunting or by other means—Hawai`i’s landscape will remain explosively unstable.

Hawai'i's BioInvasion II: The Frog-Caffeine Dilemma

(This series first appeared in HIJ in 2001)

The Island of Hawai‘i may be about to receive a massive jolt of caffeine. And it won’t be from Starbucks.

The State Department of Agriculture and Department of Land and Natural Resources are in the process of implementing a program to control the spread of Caribbean land frogs, especially the coqui frog, which has gained a noisy foothold in many Big Island communities. A key component of this campaign is an emergency EPA permit to spray with a caffeine concentrate that is 55 times as powerful as normal coffee.

The spray would be available for use by certified applicators in homes, commercial nurseries, forests, farms, lawns, and golf courses, and may become mandatory for plant shipments from commercial nurseries in frog-infested areas of the island. Because of the “emergency” nature of the application, the permit has bypassed normal EPA testing requirements. DOA officials admit that they have almost no scientific data on what effects such massive caffeine dosages would have on plants, pets, birds, reptiles, insects, or humans.

Critics of the program call it an over-reaction and worry that the cure may be a bigger problem than the disease. Supporters, including some environmentalists, say it’s an appropriate reaction, given the island’s long and woeful experience with invasive plants and animals. They say the tiny frogs with big appetites, big voices and a very high reproductive rate may be poised to repeat the history of mongooses, cane toads, rats, mosquitoes, and a long line of other biological invaders.

The frog-caffeine controversy has raised fresh debates about the dilemma of invasive species in general. In most of the islands’ lowlands, native species survive only as remnants, not as an intact ecosystem. Some areas are still forested with an overstory of native ‘ohi‘a trees, but the native understory has been crowded out by invaders such as waiwi (strawberry guava), yellow guava, and tibouchina. In some areas “weed trees” such as African tulip trees, gunpowder trees and banyans are pushing out the ‘ohi‘a trees themselves. In the island’s few freshwater or brackish water wetlands, imported cattle egrets are far more common than Hawaiian coots. Anchialine ponds—those delicate, clear brackish-water pools along the ocean’s edge—have changed into scummy puddles, as the native shrimp that controlled algae growth are gobbled up by introduced aquarium fish. Avian-malaria-carried by imported mosquitoes has wiped out most native birds in the lowlands, and the descendants of released caged birds such as Indian minas, Japanese white-eyes and Java sparrows have taken their place. One expert has estimated that on average, a new alien species arrives in the islands once every 18 days.

Given this massive problem and the state’s very limited resources, questions about invasive species start to resemble those involved in triage process at an overloaded MASH unit. Which case is most urgent? Who can be saved? Which cases are hopeless?

This is Making Hawaii Sick”

The coqui is a good example of that process in action. The tiny frog has actually been in the islands for over a decade, but in the past two or three years the population has exploded exponentially. Coquis go through no tadpole stage; they lay their eggs on dry land and are born as miniature frogs. As a result, they are not limited to areas near ponds, and can spread rapidly, hitch-hiking on plants from infested nurseries and discount stores. A single breeding pair can quickly breed into thousands. Residents in infested areas complain about the frogs’ extremely loud breeding calls; environmentalists worry that if the coquis become established in the island’s remaining native forests, they will threaten native insects and compete with native birds for food. The frogs have already appeared as high as the Volcano area, well above the altitude limits of their normal range in Puerto Rico and well within the range of Hawai‘i’s remaining viable upland forests.

But the frogs also have their supporters. Chief among them is Sydney Ross Singer, founder of the Coqui Hawaiian Integration and Re-education Project.

“I’m a medical anthropologist,” says Singer. “I challenge the cultural things that make people sick. And when I heard about this thing, I said, this is making Hawai‘i sick.” Singer claims that there is no actual medical evidence that the frogs present a health problem by keeping people awake at night—but that by making that allegation, anti-frog forces can convince people that they are being affected, essentially creating a problem by saying there is one. Likewise, he says, “propaganda” about the frogs may affect real estate values more than the presence of the frogs themselves otherwise would, and the only threat to agriculture that the frogs present is the danger of an agricultural quarantine imposed to prevent the frog’s spread. In fact, Singer maintains, the frogs may benefit agriculture by eating insect pests.

“It (the coqui) can’t do anything intrinsically to damage the economy unless it’s done by the eradicators,” maintains Singer.

Singer has accused environmental groups and state officials of whipping up “frog mania” in order to get funding for the monitoring and eradication programs.

Long time environmental activist Nelson Ho takes issue with Singer’s reasoning. Ho works with Operation Miconia, whose Miconia Hotline has also taken on the job of helping to monitor the frogs’ spread. “The people who are doing the research already have lots to do,” Ho says. “The people who are doing Operation Miconia might be taken away from miconia work because the Department of Agriculture does not have enough personnel to handle this.”

Miconia is another invasive species, a fast-spreading tree that has wiped out much of the native forest in Tahiti and is threatening to spread into Big Island rainforests as well.

Ironically, one criticism leveled at the DOA’s frog control proposals is that they may stretch the department’s limited quarantine resources to the breaking point. “They don’t have the inspectors, or even a driveway big enough for how long the trucks would have to be in there,” believes Susan Hamilton of Plant It Hawaii, a local fruit tree nursery.

Caffeine and Quarantines

The DOA’s proposals were still in the draft stage at press time for this article. But according to Domingo Carvalho, Invertebrate and Aquatic Biota Specialist for the DOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch, the program to limit the frog’s spread would probably include several elements. Plant shipments would be inspected by spraying samples with a pyrethrum-based pesticide, which doesn’t kill the frogs, but is known to irritate them, causing them to jump from the plants and be discovered. Infected shipments would then have to go through an approved treatment before shipping. At this point, the only approved treatment would be with the super-caffeine solution.

“What we’re hoping is that the nurseries that are currently infested with frogs...can get rid of them prior to this inspection,” adds Carvalho.

State officials held a series of meetings with Hawai‘i Island nurserymen last month about the quarantine plan. Some members of the industry criticized the plan as too costly, too impractical—and too late.

“I do not believe there is an attempt to put us out of business in these strained economic times, but the regulations and procedures outlined to the Big Island Association of Nurserymen at Wednesdays meeting could do just that,” wrote Hamilton to a state official, after one such meeting. Hamilton went on to outline her own suggested six-point “smart plan” for a more comprehensive, coordinated effort to deal with invasive species. Among her recommendations were more effective inspections of plants entering the state; better education for nurserymen and their customers; inspection and eradication in frog-infested retail facilities; inspection of interisland barges and other modes of transport, and careful selection of target areas for eradication efforts. She pointed out that while Lava Tree State Park, for instance, was heavily infested, the frogs there were unlikely to travel anywhere else, while a frog-infested nursery or discount store was likely to disseminate hitch-hiking frogs with their plants.

Hamilton felt that the quarantine rules on interisland plant shipments were “too restrictive.”

“Our nursery drives to Lanikaula before every dock or plane shipment is sent,” she noted. “The time spent there cannot exceed a certain length of time, as all dock orders have to be down at the dock before noon. Some days we have three truckloads of palettes. We must wrap them to secure them for transport. Are we to unwrap each palette so that you may spray “hot shot” [a pyrethrum spray] on every load to see no frogs emerge? And then palette wrap them again at the inspection? What will the cost be of this extra step and time on the inspectors? I know it will put undo economic pressure on our nursery, as well as many others.”

Instead, Hamilton suggested quarterly inspections for the nurseries, with frog-free nurseries being allowed to ship interisland without restrictions.

Carvalho noted that some of the inspections might actually be performed at the nurseries, rather than at the docks or the quarantine facilities.

Choosing Among Unknowns

At the heart of the coqui/caffeine controversy, as with many invasive species issues, is a basic question: which is more dangerous and costly, the invaders or the countermeasures? Bio-pollution, or chemical pollution?

And too often, troublingly, the answer is “We don’t know.”

In the case of coqui vs. caffeine, the unknowns are even more troubling than usual. Singer points out that the potential of the coqui to damage the environment is still largely a matter of speculation: that no studies have been done of the affects of frog noise on human health, for instance. And since the frogs are not known to have invaded the native upland forests in significant numbers, Singer maintains, their effect on native habitat is unproven.

But Ho and other environmentalists maintain that the predictions about the coqui are more than mere speculation; they are based on hard experience with other creatures.

“There is concern that the frog exhibits the characteristics of an invasive species,” Ho maintains.

“Invasive species” is a specific name, applied to creatures that exhibit specific characteristics. According to Hawai`i’s Invasive Species, edited by George W. Staples and Robert H. Cowie, those characteristics include adaptability to different habitats; tolerance of a wide range of conditions; the ability to “eat and survive on a diversity of food sources”; the ability to live in environments disturbed by human or natural events; easy dispersal to new areas; rapid reproduction; and long or year-round breeding seasons. Invasive species are classic examples of old-fashioned Darwinian evolution; they simply out-reproduce and out-compete their more specialized rivals.

The coqui has most of these characteristics. To biologists, that spells trouble.

But there are also a huge number of unanswered questions about the proposed caffeine treatment.

“I know that frogs and snails and slugs have been identified as sensitive to caffeine. Any other species, I really don’t know,” admits DOA Pesticide Program Manager Robert Boesch Boesch.

The DOA and DLNR did subcontract for tests on the caffeine and frogs, says Boesch, but “that was primarily to identify chemicals that could be used to control the frogs.” One role of the applications under the emergency permit, he says, will be to study the caffeine’s effects on “non-target species.”

The super-caffeine solution’s effects on plant life are also largely unknown.

“We did find studies relating to an onion root, where apparently they were looking at caffeine’s effects on mitosis [cell division], says Boesch, “and there were instances of abnormal mitosis, which would suggest that it could be phytotoxic [toxic to plants].” Boesch suggests that before applying the chemical to large groups of plants, growers should test it on small sample plots first.

The EPA did identify four human populations for whom the super-caffeine formula might pose special health risks: Pregnant women, toddlers under two, people with hypertension or high blood pressure, and children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“If they’re directing sprays upwards into trees, any sensitive person will have to be kept at least 100 feet away from the area that’s being treated. That way, we should be able to manage the risk to acceptable levels,” maintains Boesch. The EPA permit allows only properly certified professionals wearing protective clothing to apply the caffeine, and restricts access for 24 hours after spraying. But Boesch admits that there is no data on how long the caffeine requires to dissipate after it is applied.

Uplands vs. Lowlands

In asking whether the invader or the treatment is the higher risk, the questioner may also need to ask which area he or she is most concerned about: the surviving native forests or the human-dominated lowlands.

For environmentalists and biologists struggling to help the native forest survive the assaults of pigs and mongooses, rats and yellowjackets, faya trees and kahili ginger, yet another invader could prove the final straw that causes the whole ecosystem’s collapse.

But in the lowlands, that collapse has already happened. If the upland forests are a battleground, then the lowlands are a biological riot, where hundreds of invasive species compete with each other for every inch of ground that’s not paved or cultivated. For environmentalists, there often seems nothing left there to protect.

For the Sierra Club’s David Kimo Frankel, the choice seems clear.

“The coqui is a far greater threat to the Hawaiian environment than caffeine, because the coqui as an alien species disrupts the native ecosystem,” he maintains. “I know that the review [for the caffeine permit] was shorter. That’s true. The emergency had to be justified, though. It is an emergency. It already may be too late.”

But for lowland residents, the invaders are more familiar than native life forms, and sometimes more cherished. When four acres of mostly non-native jungle were bulldozed near the heart of Pahoa recently, for instance, it raised a storm of protests. But residents seemed to have relatively little to say when another development claimed nearly 8 acres of ‘ohi`a trees on the edge of town.

And a little-understood pesticide applied next door may seem a more urgent than protecting birds and insects that residents have never seen.

Which is more important? What can be saved, and at what cost?

Until Hawai‘i can develop better safeguards against invasive species entering the islands to start with, residents will keep facing those dilemmas.

Archive: Hawai'i's Bioinvasion I: Life After Wilderness

(This series appeared in HIJ in 2001.)

Stretching along the Mana Road, about halfway up the windward slope of Mauna Kea, is a post-human landscape. For much of its length, the rugged jeep road follows a series of fences that mark the demarcation line between upland pastures and state- or federal-owned conservation land. The pastureland once occupied by forests of mamane and koa, has been turned into a graveyard of dead trees by years of cattle grazing. But now it’s not even very good for pasture. Much of it is choked with gorse: a prickly British shrub that literally grows needles on its needles.
Below the fenceline, the native koa-`ohi`a forest is also in trouble. Vast sections have been smothered with banana poka, a passion-fruit relative with long yellow fruit and beautiful purple-and pink flowers, which swarms over the crowns of the trees and covers whole forest canopies. The forest floor is often choked with waiwi (strawberry guava trees) and/or blackberry bushes. Wild pigs eat the poka and guava fruit, uproot native understory plants such as tree ferns, and defecate the poka and guava seeds, providing them with sunlight, fertilizer and freshly stirred soil. Imported game birds feast on the blackberries and spread them in much the same way. The dense growths of guava, poka and blackberry, in turn, form impenetrable tangles that protect the pigs and birds from hunters. It’s a coalition of creatures who were brought here by humans, but don’t need us anymore.
What’s happening on the Mana Road challenges our traditional notions of wilderness, ecology, and even evolution itself. When the National Wilderness System was set up, for instance, the first criteria of eligibility for inclusion in the system was roadlessness. The “trackless wilderness” has become a part of American mythology: once a challenge to settle, later a challenge to preserve. But the coalition of alien creatures at work on Mauna Kea doesn’t need roads. Pigs are natural bulldozers who can construct their own trails almost anywhere, bringing the hitchhiking seeds of invasive plants along in their hair and guts. The result is a weird landscape that can be entirely roadless, and yet by no means matches the conventional view of wilderness: a place where almost most nothing is as it was before the arrival of humans, but where humans seldom go. If humans were kept out entirely, the land would probably still go on changing, the native species would continue disappearing.
The situation along the Mana Road is not unique, unfortunately. All over Hawaii, non-native species are transforming the landscape. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is under assault from myrica faya trees and Himalayan raspberry, glory bush and kahili ginger. Christmas berry and fountain grass spread through the forests of Puna and Ka`u. Roof rats leap like squirrels from branch to branch in the upland forests of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, where they feast on the eggs of endangered native birds. Almost weekly, another introduced species makes headlines: Caribbean frogs, stinging caterpillars, dengue fever microbes. A recent PBS program identified invasive species as a major agent of mass extinction – particularly in the Hawaiian Islands, which have more endangered species than any other state.
For the biologists and park managers charged with keeping Hawaii’s parks and conservation areas in their “natural” state, the battle against alien species forces hard decisions, including the use of bulldozers and pesticides. “Wildernesses” essentially become special farms, cultivated to produce crops of native birds, plants and insects.
The Gorse War
Dick Wass, who manages Hakalau Forest Wildlife Refuge, works on the front lines of the battle against invasive species. The refuge is home to at least six endangered Hawaiian birds, including the Akiapolo`au, Hawai‘i Creeper, Hawai‘i Akepa, koloa (Hawaiian duck), Hawaiian coot, and the recently re-introduced Nene (Hawaiian goose). Wass estimates that 95 percent of the refuge’s budget goes directly or indirectly toward the control of invasive species."
       “If it wasn’t for alien species, we wouldn’t have a job up here,” he maintains.
Driving up the Mana Road toward the refuge, he stops his SUV beside a patch of gorse to check the progress of some of his allies. Colonies of tiny orange gorse mites, introduced from the plant’s native Scotland, encase whole branches of a gorse plant in white webbing. Wass points to the tips of another branch: normally needle sharp; these instead seem blunt and hollowed out. They’re being attacked by gorse moth caterpillars. In addition to the moths and mites, a weevil has been introduced that eats the gorse seeds.
“The idea was to introduce several different species that attacked at different times of the year and attacked different parts [of the plants],” he explains.
The area around him looks like a battle zone. Huge swaths of former pastureland have been charred by fires set in an attempt to control the gorse. The blackened branches have simply grown more needles, or seeds in the ground have sprouted in new outbursts of prickly greenery. The various players in this upland drama – ranchers, the federal agencies, and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands – have tried herbicides, bulldozers, even goats. The gorse isn’t as healthy looking as it once was. But it’s far from defeated.
Ironically, it was ranchers who first introduced gorse, in an attempt to create living hedges in place of costly wire fencing. But the gorse quickly moved out of the fencerows and into the pastures. Cattle won’t touch it, while pigs using it for cover have spread into the pasturelands.
“People that have seen gorse in Britain – they can’t believe it,” says Wass. “They’ve never seen it grow as vigorously as they see it here.”
Until now, gorse’s various human opponents have fought their own battles by various methods. But Parker Ranch, the Nature Conservancy and others have recently embarked on an integrated gorse control program, hoping to coordinate efforts against the pest.
In the refuge itself, Wass says, “We’ve gone more toward the mechanical method. Earlier on, we were more into herbicide and fire. We’re just sort of learning as we go along.”
Wass and his work crews have tackled the gorse with bulldozers, scraping the tough roots out of the ground and shoving the plants into huge piles to rot.
“You’d think they’d explode into life, but they haven’t.” Wass says of the mounds. 

Chemical Pollution vs. Bio-pollution
But gorse isn’t the only invasive species problem that the refuge faces. Holly trees, planted for Christmas foliage, are spreading across the refuge, with the aid of birds that eat the berries. The former pastureland of the upper refuge is dotted with blackberry thickets. Thick layers of imported pasture grasses choke forest understory and hinder the sprouting of koa seeds, which are designed to be triggered by sunlight on bare soil when an old tree falls in the forest. Without the cattle that normally keep it in check, the grass also poses an increasing fire hazard. Kikuyu grass is especially virulent: evolved to survive the onslaughts of wildebeests, elephants and other African grazers, it is so hardy and fast-growing that if will even sprout atop wooden fenceposts. Whole fences on the refuge have been completely buried under grass.
Ironically, the grass has become an ally against the gorse. When the refuge’s bulldozers scrape the gorse away, the rapidly spreading grasses may inhibit the sprouting of gorse seeds in the scraped area.
Refuge employees and volunteers are fighting back against these invaders with a whole arsenal of specialized weapons. Conservation workers use a device that injects rifle shell casings full of herbicide into the bases of holly trees – a method that prevents herbicide from drifting onto native plants nearby. A weak solution of Roundup is sprayed onto blackberry patches. The banana poka problem has been reduced by hand-cutting the vines as well as by an introduced insect that has spread onto the refuge from elsewhere. The bugs strip the leaves off all but the top few feet of the vines, allowing sunlight to reach the leaves of the trees beneath. Ironically, the insects, like other biocontrols, first had to be used outside the refuge because of stringent rules about introducing alien species on federal wildlife preserves.
The refuge enlisted the help of local hunt clubs to cut the pig population on six “feral ungulate management units,” then erected miles of triple-galvanized fencing, at a cost of $25,000 per mile, to keep them out. In at least one section, a pig drive was held to chase some of the remaining pigs out through a gap in the fence before it was closed.
One of the worst problems the refuge faces is that of rats. Perhaps the ultimate weed species, rats can live almost anywhere and eat almost anything – including native bird eggs and nestlings, native plant seeds and native insects. The rats can even kill trees by eating the bark, and carry diseases such as leptospirosis. The refuge harbors at least three varieties of the rodent: the common Norway rat, the diminuitive Polynesian rat, and perhaps worst of all, the roof rat (also called the black rat), whose leaping and climbing abilities make it particularly suited to forest life.
“Rats are important not just for their effect on birds, but on the entire ecosystem,” believes biologist Bethany Woodworth of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Division, who helped conduct a rat control experiment on the refuge from 1994-1999. The scientists laid out two test plots – one in which rats went unmolested, and the other in which the rat population was reduced by using spring-loaded traps and bait stations. The result was a 60-90% decrease in the rat population, and a significant increase in the number of young birds from three common native species. But the cost per square kilometer of the rat-control program was $7,000 for the first year, and $2,000 annually thereafter, not including personnel – a prohibitive figure even for the 32,700-acre refuge, much less for the millions of acres of upland forest in other federal, state and private parcels.
Another USGS biologist is experimenting with hand-broadcasting or aerial broadcasting bait stations loaded with Diphacinone, which is approved for use in forested areas by Hawaii Department of Agriculture. If that proposal is ever implemented on a wide scale, it will probably draw fire from environmentalists concerned about dispersing pesticides through the rainforest. But the wildlife managers have to weigh any potential dangers from the rodenticide against the very real damage caused by the rodents. It’s a dilemma of chemical pollution versus bio-pollution.

Survival of Those that Fit

But perhaps the ultimate weapon against invasive species is a better understanding of how species themselves interact.
Had Darwin studied what was happening in the Hawaiian Islands, he might have reached a somewhat different understanding of evolution. The island’s original ecosystem was a prime example not so much of species competition, but of species cooperation, with scores of species specialized to support each other. Native birds, for instance, have developed special bills to reach the nectar in the flowers of particular plants, which in term rely on them for pollination. If you remove the bird, the plant dies; if you remove the plant, the bird dies. If the plants in the forest understory are healthy, then their shade protects against invasive weeds growing up. The whole system, then, both protects the individual species and is dependent upon them. “Survival of the fittest” becomes the survival of those that fit together.
A few species, such as the rats, seem to be in it mainly for themselves. But what is happening along the Mana Road is generally a team sport, fought by coalitions of species. Some of the coalitions are ancient: the Hawaiian rainforest, for instance, and. the pasture ecosystem that encompasses cows and grasses, grasshoppers and dung beetles. Other alliances, such as the pigs and poka, are new and unstable; no one knows what would eventually result if poka vines actually smothered the forest canopy, and the rotting trees brought the vines back to earth.
The decisive factor in some of these struggles may very well be which team humans decide to join.
At Hakalau, staff and volunteers are helping the forest defend itself from the invaders by helping the forest coalition to re-knit itself. Refuge staff and volunteers have planted 230,000 trees at Hakalau by since 1989. Most have been koa, but in recent years the refuge has also begun planting understory trees and plants as well, growing some seedlings in its own greenhouse system. Planting the trees in mauka-makai belts has created wildlife corridors to help endangered birds repopulate isolated stands of original forest. Planting stands in different years is allowing a multi-age forest to grow up, supporting different insects in different stages of the trees’ life cycle..
Along the way, the staff is learning more and more about how the coalition protects itself. One study discovered, for instance, that in established groves of trees, the temperature averaged three degrees warmer on winter nights – a critical factor in the refuge’s upper reaches, where light frosts killed many of the seedlings that staff and volunteers set out. So they began erecting thousands of “frost protection devices”: small barriers of black shade cloth that helped raise the microclimates around the seedlings by that that critical few degrees. Eventually, the mature stands will help -protect their own seedlings from the frost.
The cost of such efforts is steep; the refuge has an annual budget of around $900,000, bolstered by thousands of hours of volunteer labor. The staff is always on the lookout for volunteer groups to plant trees, gather koa seed, pull weeds, rip out old fence and kill holly. “If somebody has a group of 6-12 people who want to help, please give us a call,” Wass suggests. The refuge office can be reached at 933-6915.
Meanwhile, millions of acres of upland rainforest on state and private lands are enduring a similar onslaught, with little or no funds available for alien species control. A 1985 study found that less than 15% of the upland koa forest was still viable as a forest. That percentage is probably much smaller now.
The post-human landscape continues to advance.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Archive: A Ceremony of Divorce

Human beings of every culture mark great changes in their lives -- birth, puberty, graduation, marriage, death -- with ritual ceremonies: gatherings of friends and family to share emotions, beauty and wisdom; to honor the past and make commitments for the future. Of these rites of passage, perhaps the most elaborate, beautiful and celebrated is the wedding. The marriage ritual is composed not only of solemn vows, but of most of the elements of art and poetry: symbolic acts and images, resplendent spectacle, deliberate drama (How to you instantly boost the ratings of a TV show? Write a wedding into the plot.) A marriage ceremony isn't just a wedding of two people; it's a wedding of religion and custom with beauty and sharing, to reinforce the power of the couple's act.

Unfortunately, there's one great, life-changing passage for which no similar ceremony is customary, at least in Western culture: the event of divorce. The closest thing we have is the Catholic act of annulment–but that's not a solemn acknowledgement; it's more of a religious ostrich act, sticking the church's head in a hole and pretending the marriage never happened. Traditional Judaism has a ceremony, but it’s brief, private, and starkly simple: only men are allowed to initiate a divorce, and they do so simply by writing a bill of divorcement, called a get, and presenting it to their wives, saying “Behold, I divorce you!” and tearing up the marriage contract. Family and friends are usually not invited.

“At present, the get ceremony is often conducted as if it were an exclusively legal procedure, with little attention given to the emotional and spiritual dimensions of the experience,” write Jewish scholars Or N. Rose and Judith Rosenbaum, in an essay called “Renewing the Ritual of Get.”

Shin Buddhism has a divorce ceremony. So do some Native American traditions. And in recent years, the idea has been brought up more and more frequently in Western society. The United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ now have optional divorce ceremonies included in their liturgies; a Michigan Lutheran minister and the Episcopalian bishop of Newark have both written their own rituals for divorce, and Unitarians have experimented with various divorce rituals. A liberal Jewish Web site called offers a variety of optional ceremonies to mitigate the bruskness and sexism of the get. But in general, in our society, marriage is celebrated openly and publicly, while divorce takes place in private. Marriages are presided over by ministers (civil ceremonies excepted), but divorces are the domain of lawyers and judges.

That's a great and sad mistake.

Before I became a full-time writer, I worked for three years as a paralegal for my then-wife, who ran a family law practice specializing in domestic violence cases. “Family law” was, in a sense, a misnomer, because what we really were doing was helping people to survive as family units broke apart – and helping those units to break apart, when the only thing worse than being apart was being together. There was and is, unfortunately, a great and terrible need of for such services on this island. We could never fill that yawning abyss, and strain of trying finally cost us our own marriage.

In fact, no lawyer, judge or court can completely heal the wounds of a severed family, and part of the reason for the problem is our reliance on the legal system to do so, to the exclusion of the community.

When a person dies, there’s a whole web of rituals that involve the family and friends in the mourners’ lives – not just the memorial service, but such little things as the custom of bringing food to the deceased’s family, so they don’t have to cook. The corpse is put on display, so everyone can say one last goodbye—and hug the mourners, and share comforting memories, and offer help.

But there’s no system of community involvement to aid in the mourning for a failed marriage. Family court proceedings are sealed, especially when children are involved; dead marriages have no obituaries. Even in the best of circumstances, a family breakup is a wretched, wrenching experience, and all too often, it is made even worse by the isolation that the victims feel, as their relatives, in-laws, mutual friends, and even church congregations fall silent, became distant, frown disapproval, whisper snide remarks – or, even worse, take sides and attack. Adults and children carry the psychic wounds of one relationship into the next, and often their friends only know what’s happened from gossip.

This is the opposite of what needs to take place. If ever there is a point of change when human beings need their community to come together around them in love, beauty and affirmation, it is this time.

We need ceremonies of divorce.

Such a ceremony might sound something like this (Christian version):

Minister: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to acknowledge a tragedy in the lives of our friends, John and Marsha, to affirm our love and support for them, and to acknowledge their transition into new stages of life. John and Marsha, please come forward.

(John and Marsha step forward, wearing simple clothes of mourning.)

Minister: John and Marsha, do you acknowledge that a marriage existed between you, that you loved each other and cared for each other, and that this bond was a precious, solemn and valuable thing?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Do you solemnly pledge to remember that this bond existed, and to honor and respect that memory?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Do you understand the gravity of that bond, and power of your pledge before God to maintain it?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Do you affirm that despite your efforts and solemn pledges, this bond has dissolved, or that to continue it would cause more pain and damage to yourselves, your families and your friends than could be healed?

John and Marsha: We do.

Minister: Are there any children of this marriage?

John and Marsha: Yes.

Minister: How many?

John and Marsha: one.

Minister: Please give the name and age of that child. Please answer individually. John?

John: Michael, aged nine.

Minister: Marsha?

Marsha: Michael, aged nine.

Minister: Michael, are you here today?

Michael: Yes.

Minister: Michael, please come forward, and stand with your parents.

(Michael comes forward, and stands in between his parents.)

Minister: John and Marsha, please take Michael's hands.

(They do so)

Minister: John, do you acknowledge that absolution from your marriage vow to Marsha does not absolve you of your bond to Michael, and that no ceremony and no law exists that can remove from you the name of "Father"?

John: I do.

Minister: Then please repeat after me.

(John repeats the following pledge, after the Minister:

Michael, I love you. What's happening today is no fault of yours, and I will always love you, even when we are apart. I'll always do my best to take care of you, and you can always come to me as your father. I'll work with your mother to give you the best life possible, and I'll never use you to fight with her. I'll do my best to help your mother be your mother, and I'll still be your father in every way I can.

Minister: Michael, do you understand that your father still loves you, and pledges to still be your father in every way he can?

Michael: I do.

(This ceremony is repeated between Michael and Marsha, substituting "father" for "mother" and vice versa.)

Minister: John and Marsha, by the power invested in me by God and before this congregation, I absolve you of all the bonds and obligations of your marriage, save two. You have sworn again today to love and support your son. And you have sworn to respect and support each other as the parents of your son. And I now call on all those gathered here to affirm these relationships, both new and continuing. Do you vow to love, acknowledge and support John and Marsha as your friends, and to help them in their continuing roles as Michael's parents?

Congregation: We do.

Minister: And do you acknowledge that your love and friendship for John and Marsha continues, even though their own relationship has changed?

Congregation: We do.

Minister: John and Marsha, you will now place your rings in the crucible.

(John and Marsha place their wedding rings in a small crucible set up before the altar.)

Minister: these rings will be melted, and two new rings that will be given to Michael by their father and mother: one for each hand, each engraved with a message of a parent's continued love for his or her son.

This marriage is ended. But all of you are charged to continue what was good from that relationship. Let each friendship continue, each good sharing go on. Let no one say this marriage was a mistake, and let no one forget that it happened. Remember the good, and heal.

Let us pray.

(All present bow their heads.)

Minister: Lord, we ask your blessing upon this solemn change and upon all present, and your continued guidance and forgiveness through the changes ahead. Remind us that we are all frail and in need of the love and support of others, and that our own pride should never keep us from seeking the help of others when we need it, and that our own angers and ambitions should never blind us to the need of our children. Please help us to remember, in our humanity, that Your own love flows not only between two people, but between all people, and that even more powerful than the bond of marriage is the gift of forgiveness.

All Present: Amen.