(UPDATE) – This video was updated to include credit to Hawaiʻi DLNR for the video recorded in the field.
(BIVN) – The uncontrolled growth of invasive grass on Mauna Kea is an increasing public safety issue, residents say, because the fuel load could lead to a future brush fire.
Don Fujimoto, a resident of dry Waikoloa and an avid bird hunter, recently shared his growing concerns with the Hawaiʻi County Game Management Advisory Commission in Hilo. Fujimoto recently appeared in video recorded by the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, showing Fujimoto traversing the high grass, with his hunting dog by his side, during a game bird count on Mauna Kea.
Fujimoto said that despite the intense effort over the last two decades to eradicate the sheep on Mauna Kea in order to preserve the critically endangered palila bird habitat, “you see the palila population going down.”
Following a federal lawsuit, the ungulates were ordered to be removed from the critical habitat. Sheep and goats are said to damage the māmane trees that the palila bird depends on. The problem, Fujimoto and other hunters contend, is that the sheep also ate the tall grass that is now growing out of control.
“The unintended consequence is that we’re getting this huge fuel load up on Mauna Kea,” Fujimoto told the commission. “The problem is you add wind to that and suddenly it’s a huge danger to the communities. So we’re spending tax dollars, it’s not getting the job done, and we’re risking lives of people who live around the mountain.”
“My suggestion is, let’s stop eradicating the sheep, let them start to come back,” Fujimoto said. “But it’s gonna be years before there are any kind of population to control the fire load.”
“When you walk through those areas with heavy grass,” Fujimoto continued, “you will not see any māmane seedlings. The seeds that are dropped off the trees can’t take hold because the grasses are so thick. So, you know, it’s defeating the purpose of eradicating the sheep because you’re really not helping the māmane. The only place you find māmane growing – small māmane – is where the ground has been cleared by volunteers and they’ve planted seedlings.”
Commissioner Nani Pogline, who has spoken out against sheep eradication in the past, said she was told by Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources officials that the state plans to mitigate the brush fire potential by creating firebreaks through the grass.
“Firebreaks can work, I guess, if they’re wide enough and maintained,” Fujimoto answered. “But if a fire is throwing embers 100 to 150 yards into dry grass – that’s like tinder. I don’t know how effective it is.”
“What I’m seeing is on the west side of the mountain. That’s where the palila live. A big fire on the west side of the mountain is gonna take them all out,” Fujimoto said.
“I’m gonna push this issue forward,” Fujimoto said, “but I don’t want to push it forward as a hunting issue, okay? I know the hunters have had a lot of history and are angry about a lot of what’s been going on. The problem is, if we push it forward as a hunting issue, it’s going to alienate other people who might become allies. I’m not sure what the Commission can do except be aware and maybe spread knowledge of the problem you know that there is a potential public safety issue here.”
In the coming weeks, the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife will conduct another round of animal control activities “for trapping mouflon/feral sheep hybrids and for staff hunting, and/or aerial shooting from helicopters for feral goats, feral sheep, mouflon and mouflon/feral sheep hybrids within palila critical habitat in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve (Unit A), Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve (Unit K), palila mitigation lands, and the Ka’ohe Game Management Area (Unit G) on the island of Hawaiʻi,” a state media release said.
Hawaiʻi DLNR says the control work is scheduled for February 14 and 15, 2019. State officials say public access to Mauna Kea Forest Reserve, Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve, palila mitigation lands, the Ka’ohe Game Management Area and Mauna Kea Hunter Access Road will be restricted and allowed by permit only for animal salvage purposes on February 14, 2019 at 7 a.m. and February 15, 2019 at 6 a.m.