Don’t Let This Be the Last Endangered Species Day

Dispatch from Hawaii, endangered species capital of the United States

Endangered Species Day is May 19 — will this be the last time we celebrate it?

Artwork by Shawn DiCriscio

Republicans in Congress have increased their efforts to gut or repeal the Endangered Species Act, working to destroy this iconic law and the hundreds of species that it is saving.

As the former field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Islands Office in Honolulu, I know how important the Endangered Species Act is to protecting Hawaii’s rarest plants and animals. And I hope we can stop uncaring politicians from sacrificing the environment for the sake of their short-sighted, destructive goals.

Being the endangered species capital of the United States, Hawaii has a huge stake in this debate. Our state has more than 500 federally protected species and almost 1 out of every 3 endangered species is found here.

Endangered Laysan duck on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

These species are important scientifically, culturally and economically. But their risk of extinction is real. More than 200 native Hawaiian plants have fewer than 50 wild individuals remaining, with 12 species down to only a single plant. The spread of bird malaria due to increasing temperatures associated with climate change threatens the survival of most of forest birds, like iiwi and akepa.

Every year, millions of dollars in federal funding is allocated to protect and restore these species and their native habitats. While current funding is important, it is far less than what is needed. Hawaii in particular gets a disproportionately small share of funding. Hawaii has 30 percent of the nation’s endangered species and receives only 9 percent of the federal funds available for recovering endangered species.

There is a clear need for more federal and state funding to protect endangered species — and for Hawaii to get its fair share.

So, what needs to be done?

Tell our politicians they need to work hard to keep the Endangered Species Act strong. The law has been very successful. More than 99 percent of species under its protection have avoided extinction, and it has helped hundreds more improve, like nene and Haleakala silverswords.

In Hawaii, we can support successful programs like the Invasive Species Committees found on each island; the critically important Watershed Partnerships that protect water and endangered species; the Plant Extinction Prevention program and its sister effort for Hawaiian tree snails; and Natural Area Reserves. Volunteering with agencies and conservation organizations is a great way to help and see firsthand Hawaii’s amazing endangered plants and animals.

After getting my start at the Bishop Museum, in the 26 years I have been involved in the endangered species crisis I have seen great progress in conservation and tremendous passion by hundreds if not thousands of people that call Hawaii home.

But if we are to save Hawaii’s unique flora and fauna, we must fix two problems that were our biggest issues 26 years ago and remain so today.

First, we have to keep new invasive species out of Hawaii. If we continue to fail in this we will never be successful in recovering native species or protecting the health and economic well-being of our citizens.

Second, the state must get control of its hunting programs to prevent extinctions of native species. It has been known for decades that introduced goats, pigs, mouflon, and deer destroy native forests. These non-native animals must be removed from native forests and restricted to areas that are not needed to protect native forests, coral reefs, and watersheds.

We must get past politics and speak up — not only for future generations, but also for the spectacular Hawaiian plants and animals teetering on the brink of extinction.

Endangered Sesbania tomentosa on Oahu

Loyal Mehrhoff is endangered species recovery director for the Center for Biological Diversity based in Honolulu.