KOKEE — The Kokee Air Force Base is operating in blackout conditions to avoid grounding anymore endangered seabirds after receiving a June 28 letter threatening a lawsuit.
Colonel Frank Flores, Commander, Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center, said seabird ecologists at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife notified the Air Force of the alleged Endangered Species Act violations at the base.
“The site is currently in a blackout phase to achieve additive protections for the birds in question (Hawaiian petrel and Newell’s shearwaters),” Flores said.
Managers of the base are also re-initiating consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure the right permits and opinions for incidental take of Newell’s shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels.
“The PRSC has developed a draft biological assessment, which shall be used to trigger re-initiation of consultation under Auspice of ESA,” Flores said. “The intended result of submission is a USFWS Biological Opinion possessing a suitable incidental take permit.”
He said a draft BA has been sent over to the USFWS and during the first week of August, the U.S. Air Force conducted an internal review of the draft BA.
Final submission of the BA to USFWS is set for this week.
The letter that kicked off the blackout was sent by the Center for Biological Diversity to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force.
“Until lights are permanently disconnected at the Kokee AFB for the entire seabird season, the Base will continue to violate the (Endangered Species) Act,” the letter says.
Flores said the Air Force Legal Operations Agency office is managing the engagement with the Center for Biolical Diversity regarding the notice of intent to sue.
“AFLOA’s communication effort will occur in concert with the submission of the BA to USFWS,” Flores said. “The BA shall serve as our backbone for re-initiation with the USFWS.”
According to Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, the letter was sparked by two separate incidents — one in 2014 and one in 2015.
In those incidents combined, a total of at least 121 Newell’s shearwaters and six Hawaiian petrels were harmed and/or killed at Kokee AFB because of their lights.
According to the letter of intent to sue, most of the birds were breeding adults “and their chicks were likely lost due to the reduced parental care while rehabilitation occurred.”
Both bird species are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“It’s a pretty small facility, just a few buildings and a big radar tower but it is in a location that is a high density area for birds,” said Hartl. “It’s a bad situation because (Kokee AFB) is situated so close to the mountain colonies.”
Hartl explained without the disconnection of the lights, any employee could easily flip a switch. He said he thinks better control of the lights is required for the safety of the birds.
“You can’t just say we promise to turn the lights off, because it’s easy to forget,” Hartl said. “You need a more safeguarded system and that’s one of the problems.”
The Department of Defense got a pass for a couple of years from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the take of 12 Newell’s shearwaters and one Hawaiian petrels from 2011 to 2013, however the Service’s Biological Opinion has expired.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, that BiOp needs to be updated, but even taking the outdated BiOp into account, the organization says too many endangered birds have died.
“They were supposed to reinitiate that (BiOp) in September and they still haven’t done so, which is pretty disappointing,” Hartl said.
According to the letter of intent to sue, the main issue appears to be the perimeter lights.
“They are very bright, and orientated in such a way that they are facing outwards, or in some cases partially upwards,” the letter states. “This means in foggy conditions in particular they are creating a huge glow that is bringing breeding adults in from nearby colonies.”
The letter suggests the lights be turned off as “in their current state they will continue to pull birds in every night.”
Hartl said he’s hopeful the lights will go out before this year’s fledging season, which begins in September.
“Because Kokee Air Force Base is operating without incidental take authorization, and its operations are causing take of listed birds, Kokee Air Force Base and the Department of Defense are in violation of the Endangered Species Act,” the letter says.