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Hawaii Island Dims Lights to Save Crashing Birds

Adrianne Appel on Kauai, Hawaii
for National Geographic News
September 19, 2006
 
It's lights out or else, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says to the
Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Kauai is home to three nocturnal sea birds that are listed as endangered or threatened with extinction on the U.S. endangered species list. The birds, including the Hawaiian petrel, are rarely seen by humans and navigate by moonlight (map of Hawaii).

During the night artificial lights can confuse the birds and cause them to crash into telephone poles and other objects. For years people have found the birds' dead or injured bodies in the morning.

(Related: "Light Pollution Taking Toll on Wildlife, Eco-Groups Say" [April 2003].)

With the birds on the decline, the Fish and Wildlife Service has stepped in.

In a novel use of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the agency is insisting that businesses and the county of Kauai turn down their lights at night.

"These species have been protected by the Endangered Species Act, and there's been no appreciation of the law," said Keith Swindle, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent for the Pacific region.

The targeted birds also include the threatened Newell's shearwater and the band-rumped storm-petrel, which is likely to be listed as threatened soon.

Hawaii has more endangered and threatened species than any other U.S. state, so aggressive protective measures are warranted, Swindle says.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has asked that all nonessential lights be turned off between September 15 and December 15, when the young birds leave their nests for the open sea.

Malls, resorts, parking lots, and restaurants are all part of the campaign, which began in earnest in 2005.

In addition, the island's electric utility, the Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative, has darkened all of its 3,000 streetlights, turning off some completely and shielding others. The utility has also installed large balls on its power lines to help birds avoid the cables.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has told Norwegian Cruise Line, whose tourist ships pull into Kauai, that passenger boats too must darken their lights by turning off or shielding nonessential lights.

The county of Kauai, which oversees the airport and many parks, has also been put on notice.

"I'm the carrot, he's the stick," said Andrea Erichsen, who works closely with Swindle as the Kauai Seabird Habitat Conservation Plan's coordinator.

She contacts businesses near where dead or injured birds have been found and urges the establishments to voluntarily dim their lights.

"I CC Keith on letters to businesses, so they know enforcement is there potentially. It really does help," Erichsen said.

Unintentional Take

A bird-rescue operation has been in place on Kauai for 25 years, but it failed to prevent bird deaths, so the bird population has declined. There are just 300 known Hawaiian petrels left on Kauai.

A 1995 survey on Kauai estimated 14,600 pairs of Newell's shearwaters nesting on Kauai. Black on top and white underneath, the species measures about 13 inches (33 centimeters) long and can live for up to 50 years.

With no intervention, Kauai's Newell's shearwaters population is predicted to decrease by about 6 percent a year over the next ten years, Erichsen says.

"We know the lights and other obstructions are contributing greatly to the decline. It needs to be addressed quickly," Erichsen said.

Under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to "take" a threatened species, meaning to kill, hunt, harm, or harass the animal or to harm its environment. The provision is typically used against proposed changes to an animal's environment, such as new construction or the clearing of property.

Swindle's Fish and Wildlife Service office charges that the lights and other obstructions on Kauai are causing "take," even though it is unintentional and the causes have been in place for many years.

"There has been a violation of the law for some time," Swindle said.

Swindle approaches businesses with cooperation in mind, and so far he's been successful.

"I don't want to shut down the power supply on the island of Kauai," he said.

Remote Nests

The Newell's shearwater and Hawaiian petrel, known for its daring aerial maneuvers and black collar, live mostly out at sea. There, fishers know the shearwater in part by its habit of following the small fish scared up to the surface by traveling schools of tuna.

But every two and a half years the petrel and shearwater return to Kauai to nest in remote mountain areas.

The birds are present elsewhere in the Hawaii Islands, but 85 percent of each of their populations nest on Kauai.

The fledglings leave their nests in the fall and attempt to make their way to the sea. Easily confused, especially on moonless nights, these youngsters make up the bulk of downed birds on Kauai, the Kauai Seabird Habitat Conservation Plan's Erichsen says.

People who find downed birds can deposit them in overnight boxes at fire stations all over the island. Specialists pick up the birds in the morning and bring them to one of two assigned veterinarians.

The birds have a 95 percent recovery rate, said Sharon Reilly, who coordinates the drop-off program.

The utility cooperative runs the program as part of its downed-bird mitigation plan with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter, says his organization helped write a law in Hawaii to restrict floodlights on water along Hawaii's coasts.

Mikulina supports the effort on Kauai and applauds its inventiveness.

"It's unique, but that's exactly how we envision the Endangered Species Act being used."

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