LIHUE — Take a walk through the 450-acre Timbers at Hokuala property and you’ll notice something’s changed over the past few months.
There aren’t many endangered nene or Hawaiian geese around anymore. But, there are border collies.
Two of them, to be exact — Quade and Quinn — who are partnered with handlers and wildlife biologists to do one thing: chase away the birds.
The black and white herding dogs are part of a one-year pilot project on the property, the goal of which is to deter nene from hanging out on the Timbers/Hokuala property, which is adjacent to Lihue Airport.
The end game is to decrease the chance of bird strikes, protecting the endangered species as well as residents and visitors leaving or arriving on island.
The project is the first of its kind on Kauai and is a partnership with Hokuala Resort/Timbers Kauai and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
“It’s taken four and a half years (to develop the program),” said USDA Hawaii State Director of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Office Craig Clark, on Tuesday. “We needed a non-lethal way (to deter the nene) that didn’t disrupt the people at the resort.”
The dogs arrived on island June 26, and since then project partners say there’s been a 90% decrease in the number of nene on the property, though the exact number of nene hanging out at Timbers/Hokuala hasn’t been documented because it changes frequently.
Currently the birds are looking for places to land for the 2018/19 breeding season, which runs August through March. Now is a good time to get those birds to settle elsewhere, before they establish nests for the season.
Nene have been federally listed since 1967 and a program to release captive-bred birds throughout the state began on Hawaii Island in 1960. Captive-bred birds were released on Kauai in 1985.
Since then, the population has grown to about 1,300 birds on Kauai, according to 2015 estimates. The birds began nesting at the resort property near the two main runways at Lihue Airport in the mid-1980s.
In 2011, Gov. Neal Abercrombie signed an emergency proclamation initiating a nene translocation project that ran through 2016, with positive results.
A total of 652 nene were translocated to Maui and Hawaii Island.
When that translocation program ended the nene started to return.
“We don’t want them to get comfortable on the property again,” Clark said.
The plan is to add another dog/trainer team to the mix, for a total of three teams flushing the birds from the property. Coordination with the airport is ongoing so they can make sure the birds are safely leaving the area and not going back through the airport airspace.
The activity of dispersing the birds is called “hazing” and project partners are using other ways to haze the birds in conjunction with the dogs. Some of those include approaching the nene with golf carts, walking, running, or using handheld flags and flashlights. Noise disturbance won’t be part of the plan.
It’s still unknown where the nene go after being deterred from the property. However, partners expect they’ll nest in other wetlands and areas on the island.
Satellite tags have been fitted to 10 birds to monitor their activities, and tags are also being embedded in the dogs’ collars with the hope of collecting as much data as possible. If it works, partners say the tactic could be used in other places.
The dogs come from the North Carolina company Kuykendall Coulter, which trains border collies as working dogs for a variety of purposes including sheep and cattle herding. The company worked with the Kauai partnership for several weeks both in North Carolina and on Kauai to make sure the dogs were ready for safely chasing away the nene.
Border collies are good dogs to use for the project because of their instincts, herding and people pleasing is in their nature. The dogs also typically keep a bit further distance from the birds than other breeds would.
“They’re controllable and their reward is making you happy,” said trainer Kody Kuykendall, who was on island Tuesday.
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or at firstname.lastname@example.org