Hunters question DLNR’s proposal to fence 550 acres in Kokee

Kauai hunters are challenging a state proposal to put a fence around 550 acres of the Kuia Natural Area Reserve in Kokee to protect federally-protected endangered plants.

The hunters contend that implementation of the proposal would result in their losing access to one of Kauai’s prime hunting areas, and that the fence will not save endangered plant species.

One hunter issued this warning: Fence sections will be cut down with bolt-cutters if it encloses the 550 acres.

Twenty five hunters took that stand at an informational meeting on the proposal held at the Kekaha Neighborhood Center Wednesday night.

Officials of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife Natural Area Reserves System, held the meeting to gather public input on the proposal.

Attending the meeting were Randy Kennedy and Christen Mitchell from the DLNR office in Oahu, and Galen Kawakami, a forester with the DLNR forestry and wildlife on Kauai, plus Thomas Kaikapu, a wildlife biologist with the DLNR office on Kauai.

The officials said they could consider recommendations from hunters, including two from Kalaheo resident Billy DeCosta, a longtime hunter and a public school teacher at Waimea Canyon School.

DeCosta said the state agency should consider establishing two smaller enclosures that would operate for 20 years. He also recommended using no more than 100 acres being enclosed to protect 19 endangered or threatened plant species mentioned in the DLNR plan.

“We just can’t jump to conclusions, you have to listen to these local guys,” DeCosta said in asking officials to consider options to the current proposal.

State officials said they would consider “liberal hunting” as a way to control the animal population in any new enclosure in the Kuia reserve.

The officials said they would incorporate new public comments before a final environmental assessment is completed, possibly by fall.

The proposed fencing project calls for putting 3.7 miles of steel mesh fencing around forestry lands located in the southwest corner of the reserve.

The installation of the fence involves clearing a six-foot corridor through vegetation.

The proposed fencing configuration was developed with DLNR staffers and fencing contractors, Kennedy said.

The criteria for the project also was based on the ease with which the fence could be constructed, the topography of the land and endangered plant population, according to Mitchell.

DeCosta said it seemed the proposal was going to be approved no matter what the hunters had to say. He declared to the hunters in the audience that the state “was forcing this down your throats.”

State officials maintained, however, that that was not the case, and that they were open to any options.

During the meeting, one hunter demanded to know who would benefit from the large fencing project. Kawakami responded that the beneficiaries would be hunters and residents.

Other hunters asked why state officials were considering enclosing 550 acres when they seemed to be having trouble maintaining smaller enclosures.

Ronald Ozaki from Kekaha said it seemed pointless to pursue the latest project if an endangered plant species in an existing enclosure in the Kuia refuge experienced only a ten percent recovery rate.

Kawakami said 12 enclosures now exist in the area and that it was a difficult species, kokia kauaiensis, that experienced a 10 to 25 percent recovery rate.

He added other native plant populations in that enclosure and other enclosures were doing fine and were on the increase.

Others asked why the state was proposing the protective barriers when state workers on Kauai were having trouble keeping up with maintaining other enclosures.

Kawakami said he has maintained fences and has monitored plant growth with six fellow workers, three of whom are federally funded.

Dr. Stephen Weller, a researcher from the University of California Irvine campus, set up five of the 12 enclosures, and maintains them today with associates, Kawakami said. There are plans to hire a horticulturist to help with the work, Kawakami added.

Keith Robinson, whose family owns the island of Niihau and much of the Makaweli area on Kauai, said he has spent the last 20 years protecting rare and endangered Kauai native plants.

He said the task was daunting, adding that state workers, who may not have his expertise, would be facing a gargantuan task if they proposed to enclose and maintain 550 acres for plant protection.

The task would be too expensive and would involve more manpower than the state agency has, Robinson said.

Roderick Kanoa, a third-generation Kauai hunter, said that hunters wouldn’t care about the protection of the endangered plants if it would mean they would lose their ability to hunt and provide additional food for their families.

Kanoa favored smaller enclosures as a way to ensure future generations of hunters can continue to use all of the Kuia refuge.

Kennedy said the size of the area to be protected is up in the air, but that the construction of a fence is a certainty.

Generally, though, it is more cost-effective to build “a large fence,” and that fencing projects to protect endangered plants have worked successfully in national parks and state forest reserves in Hawaii, Kanoa said.

Kennedy said the proposal is not driven by a lawsuit-generated mandate that required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish critical habitat designations for 83 threatened and endangered plants on Kauai.

Through a court order brought about by a lawsuit filed in 1997 by the Earthjustice environmental law organization, Fish and Wildlife was required to establish the protective zones after listing 245 plant species statewide for protection.

Kennedy said a former employee with Earthjustice volunteered her services and worked temporarily for his division.

Bu he said it was unlikely the temporary staffer had any hand in developing the boundaries for the proposed Kuai refuge project.

Kennedy added the project was initiated by DLNR and that “the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no ability to tell us where to put the fence.”

Kennedy also said his division has continuously sought ways to protect endangered native plants in Hawaii.

Fish and Wildlife had originally proposed protective designations for 100,000 acres on Kauai and Niihau but approved a revised plan this year calling for protection of only 52,549 acres on Kauai and 375 acres on Ni’ihau.

Fish and Wildlife officials partly reduced the acreage for the planned protection after using more detailed scientific data in identifying the location of the plants.

For Kokee and Kuia forestry areas, Fish and Wildlife officials partly reduced the acreage for protection designation after the state’s plant management plans were deemed sufficient, according to Kawakami.

The 1,636-acre Kuia Natural Area Reserve was established in 1981 to protect rare koa and ohia mixed montane mesic forest and Kauai’s lowland mesic forest and habitat for endangered plant species, according to DLNR officials.

The reserve contains one of the best examples of “mesic forest” remaining in the Hawaiian Islands, DLNR officials said.

The site contains at least 25 species of endangered or threatened plants, including, Kokia Kauaiensis and euphorbia haeleeleana.

The reserve also is home to the endangered Hawaiian hoary boat and the endangered Kauai thrush.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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