Rob Parsons

State of Disquietude

The untold story of alien invasive species

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
February 01, 2007

As I walk down a segment of Kaupakalua Road in Haiku near my home, all the lush undergrowth seems to be invasive. Strawberry guava, African tulip, cane grass, clidemia hirta and wedelia, which my landscaper friend used to call "the scourge of Haiku." There is not a native plant in sight.

"A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the community," wrote Aldo Leopold in his Sand County Almanac, "and the community includes the soil, water, fauna and flora, as well as the people."

My own appreciation for invasive species work and its importance in the Hawaiian Islands took a quantum leap when I spent a day hiking with biologist Pat Bily in Kapunakea Preserve, high in the West Maui Mountains.

Bily has worked with The Nature Conservancy, which manages Kapunakea, for 17 years, and is a wealth of knowledge of both native species and invasives.

We were dropped off by helicopter near the summit of Kahalawai, the West Maui Mountains. In the early morning mist, I stood in the midst of a pristine high bog 100 percent populated with native plants. The mana, or spiritual essence, of the place was thick. For the next seven hours, we bushwhacked down a plant and bird monitoring "trail," though this would not fit the common definition of a hikeable trail. We traversed distinct biological ecosystems, with blooming native lobelia glori-amontis ("Glory of the Mountain"), and the West Maui greensword (Argyroxiphium grayanum). Shortly after noon, we reached the fence line.

Within moments, the effect of wild pigs on the environment became apparent. Undergrowth was trampled and torn. In areas where pigs had uprooted the ground like roto-tillers, mosquito larvae infested muddy puddles of water. Tibouchina and other weeds abounded, outnumbering native species. A state of disquietude replaced the serenity of the morning.

You've probably heard how coqui frogs have overrun the Big Island, infesting 7,000 to 8,000 acres and shattering any hopes of a silent night. You might be aware of the threat posed by miconia, which has overtaken native forests in Tahiti and threatens East Maui as well. And you may understand that the denuded wiliwili and coral trees across the island are the result of the tiny erythrina gall wasp, first cited on Maui just 18 months ago.

But there is probably much you may not know about the heroic efforts undertaken to protect Maui's environment, economy and quality of life from these types of alien invaders.

It's said that all the native species which emerged in these remote, volcanic islands arrived here by wing, wind or water. The Polynesians arrived by water, bringing with them taro, yams, bananas, breadfruit and pigs. They also introduced ti plant, bamboo, noni, paper mulberry for making tapa cloth, kukui and sugar cane. Yet none of these introductions destabilized the islands' eco-systems.

In the past two centuries, Western foreigners have behaved differently, radically altered the native eco-systems through clearing, grazing and plundering resources like sandalwood. Along with their sailing ships, and eventually airplanes, came a flurry of hitchhiking alien pests like rats, mosquitos, termites, fruit flies and centipedes, as well as infectious diseases.

More recently, intentionally introduced animals such as the cattle egret, and ornamental plants like the African tulip tree and miconia, have begun to dominate other species in ways that had not been imagined. They are examples of nature out of balance, and exist all around us. Kiawe and ironwood trees dot our coastlines. Common bird species like sparrows, cardinals, doves, mejiros and francolins are all non-native to Hawai`i.

But how does an introduced species obtain the "Wanted" poster moniker of an "invasive alien?"

Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC), founded a decade ago, does pest assessments for potential target species based upon the degree of threat, feasibility of control or eradication, potential costs and public opinion. Currently, MISC has about 20 target species, with coqui frogs and miconia being the best known. Lesser known threats include pampas grass, fountain grass, ivy gourd, banana poka, arundo (giant reed) and the veiled (not Jackson's) chameleon.

MISC grew out of a Melastome Action Committee, comprised of scientists concerned with the rapid spread and threat of members of the melastome family, principally miconia, tibouchina and clidemia. MISC has grown by leaps and bounds, and now employs a staff of 26. They use GPS mapping, interagency teamwork, cordial public outreach and passionate conservation ethics to lead successful local invasive pest control efforts.

Various watershed partnership and conservation organizations are calabash cousins to MISC: East Maui Watershed Partnership, West Maui Mountain Watershed Partnership, Leeward Haleakala Watershed Partnership, Pu`u Kukui Preserve, Lanai Watershed Partnership, East Molokai Watershed Partnership and The Nature Conservancy.

These groups are largely concerned with fencing the upper reaches of biologically sensitive areas to manage the damaging effects of feral ungulates (goats, pigs, wild cattle and axis deer). The cost of installing and maintaining fences in wild terrain is high, and often the only method of transporting workers and supplies is by helicopter.

This week, invasive species experts from several organizations and government agencies are addressing joint state legislative committees on the present and future threats represented by alien invasive species. They hope to convince lawmakers that much more funding is necessary to protect our eco-systems and our quality of life from these invaders.

MISC, which saw a three-year federal appropriation for miconia work expire this year, is hoping to find grants to make up the budget shortfall. They will also ask state legislators to approve $750,000 for coqui frog efforts on Maui.

Last year state lawmakers approved $1.8 million for frog control on the Big Island, while Maui received just $100,000. With only a dozen current coqui frog sites on Maui, MISC believes that eradication is feasible-given enough funds-everywhere except Upper Kokomo/Maliko Gulch. They're also asking the county to approve an additional $500,000 for frog control in the upcoming fiscal year 2008 budget.

In a place where it is often said that, "the environment IS the economy," such a funding request seems right both for environmental protection and economic development.

While Hawai`i's invasive species are largely here due to accidental introductions, much more can be done to prevent their spread and dispersal from island to island. There has been discussion of the high-speed Hawaii Superferry transporting noxious weeds and pests like the little red fire ant and nettle caterpillar (present on the Big Island) or the glassy-winged sharpshooter (aka "pissing wasp"), now living on Oahu.

Greater inter-island inspection efforts will be necessary, as well as federal legislation, such as HR 3468, which was introduced by then-Congressman Ed Case, to provide increased inspections of incoming passengers and cargo to Hawai`i. New Zealand not only has a greatly restricted list of allowable plants for importation, but also has a Department of Conservation, devoted to protection of its natural resources.

If Hawai`i is to reclaim its sense of place with dignity, we must strive to support efforts that help preserve and restore natural areas, from the mountains to the sea. Rallying to help stem the tide of alien invasive species is a vital component of that quest.