Despite research, preparations, rat plan concerns remain

The Lehua Island Restoration Project Partnership got underway Wednesday. That’s a nice way of saying the island is being bombarded with poisoned bait to kill the many rats that live there.

We hope this works and the plan is a complete success. As the Department of Land and Natural Resources has told us, the purpose of this project is to aid in the restoration of the island for threatened and endangered seabird conservation, which will help protect the near shore and marine environments and fisheries, and safeguard important aspects of native Hawaiian cultural heritage.

Everyone, we think, can agree that is a worthy goal and something we want to see happen. Project leaders believe while there is some limited risk to the environment, marine mammals, fish and wildlife, there is about a 90 percent chance of success. In DLNR’s own words: “The long-term benefits to native species following the removal of invasive rodents have outweighed the limited, short-lived negative impacts from an eradication operation.”

Perhaps this is the best way to go about it.

Perhaps it is not.

A similar effort in 2009 failed. The rats survived and unfortunately, some marine life died following that eradication attempt on Lehua. Some believed those deaths were related to dropping of rodenticide. However, DLNR has said no rodenticide was detected in fish collected from the die-off and it was determined to be coincidental.

This time around, and we’re summarizing here, it’s going to be different in the amount (more) and type of poison and the time of year (summer) so less vegetation for the rats to eat and they’ll instead go for the poisoned bait. We should add, DLNR explained the total tonnage of bait for the 2017 eradication is roughly 10 tons, 99.995 percent of which is non-toxic food-grade grain and other inert elements.

Once you mix in poison, it’s all poison. If you had a 64-ounce soda pop and added a single drop of arsenic, you wouldn’t drink any of it. But the poison dropped on Lehua Island is being kept to as low of levels as possible while still seeking success.

We believe planning and research that went into this project was extensive and safeguards have been taken. HDOA Chairperson Scott Enright did not approve the aerial application permit without first reviewing the situation carefully and even being present on the Island of Niihau as an observer monitoring the project Wednesday.

While TGI has published commentaries in support of this poison drop by helicopter, and it does seem for all purposes to be a reasonable plan, we’ll point out just a few concerns.

One, this doesn’t work. Project leaders have said if it doesn’t, and it will take about a year before success can be determined, it’s likely they would try again, more poison. That doesn’t sound appealing. If it fails again, we hope another method is tried to rid the island of rats. Let’s not keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. There are risks to the environment with dumping poison on an island. While we agree there are few effective means to carry out such a mission of killing thousands of rats, perhaps the island could be lined with traps that would dent the rat population, at least keep it in check. Futile perhaps, and over time not the answer, but something to consider interim should the poison plan fail again.

Two, some of the poisoned bait will wind up in the ocean. While expected to pose little threat to the environment, if more marine life coincidentally washes up dead after this poison drop, that would look bad and only seem to confirm what opponents of this project feared would happen. Even if tests again showed the deaths were not related to the poison, many would have doubts.

Three, DLNR declined Rep. Dee Morikawa’s request to have another public meeting and further explain the project. It pointed out, correctly, it held several meetings, more than legally required, and the third turned so heated it was not constructive and another meeting could turn out the same way. This project required federal and state environmental assessments and public comment periods. While we appreciate DLNR’s efforts to answer questions and meet with TGI as well as meeting with others on Kauai, it would have been even better to honor Morikawa’s reasonable request and have one more public meeting, even if it meant facing a hostile crowd and restating what was already said. Declining a community meeting, even if it is reasonable to do so, looks to some like DLNR is avoiding its critics. Sometimes, extraordinary measures are required to earn trust.

And finally, while we know these are rats we’re talking about and almost everyone hates rats and no one wants them around, death by way of eating poisoned bait is no doubt extremely painful. If there’s a more humane way to kill off thousands of rats, let’s use it.

We want the Lehua Island Restoration Project Partnership to succeed. We appreciate the efforts of those involved. Like everyone, we’ll be waiting to learn if this latest plan worked.

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