Nene geese on Kauai are beginning a $7.2 million migration to Maui and the Big Island via air.

Airplane — or helicopter — that is.

The endangered species, and Hawaii state bird, pose a risk to commercial planes arriving and departing from Lihue Airport, according to officials at the state Department of Transportation, and Department of Land and Natural Resources.

So far, 10 have been transferred to Maui in a pilot program to see how difficult it would be to catch and transfer the birds and how much it might cost. About 400 more are on the way, in accordance with a five-year, $7.2 million plan.

The cost to re-home each bird: as much as $18,000.

The number of birds being shipped is likely to go up as the birds breed over the next five years, potentially bringing the cost per bird down somewhat.

Since 1995, there have been 1,054 bird strikes at the Kauai airport. None of them were nene, according to Dan Meisenzhal, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, but the risk is expected to rise.

“The nene is the least of our concerns when it comes to bird mitigation,” he said. “They aren’t as big an issue at all.”

But with the nene population growing at a rate of 20 percent a year, he said that they are expected to present a problem, noting that it’s the larger birds that fly in flocks that are the real threat to airplanes.

Such was the case two years ago in the New York area when U.S. Airways flight 1549 flew into a flock of birds, shutting down its engines. The pilot executed an emergency landing into the icy cold Hudson River – all passengers survived.

The nene were first introduced into the area surrounding the Kauai airport by a previous owner of the Kauai Lagoons Resort, which is located right next to the airport. The birds have since settled in, making themselves at home throughout the property’s wetlands and enticing 18-hole golf course.

All Hawaii airports have bird mitigation measures to protect planes, but the nene pose a particular problem because they are classified as an endangered species and can’t be harmed or killed.

The plan to remove the birds has been under deliberation for several years, said Meisenzhal. The relocation plans received the green light in April, when Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued a proclamation suspending 26 state laws that would have prevented their removal.

The birds will be kept in a 25-acre cage in Piihonua on the Big Island, according to Scott Fretz, the wildlife program manager at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. The birds are also being kept at a location only reachable by helicopter on Maui’s Haleakala Ranch. DLNR is looking for a new Maui location that can handle the number of expected birds.

Wildlife officials will clip the birds’ wings and keep them in cages for a year in the hope that other nene flocks will accept them into their group.

The nene have been threatened by dogs, cats, rats, wild pigs, and mongoose, in particular. The latter were brought to Hawaii to kill rats on the sugarcane plantations, rather unsuccessfully. They’ve spread throughout all the islands, except for Lanai and Kauai, and have been blamed for decimating the bird population on Maui in particular, according to the Hawaii Invasive Species Council.

How the nene geese will fare on Maui and the Big Island remains to be seen, though Fretz noted that the nene had been increasing in population on both islands despite the mongoose.

The nene are believed to have numbered in the 10s of thousands throughout all of the Hawaiian Islands during the 1700s, but fell to a low of 30 birds in 1951, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The population has since climbed to more than 2,000 on Kauai, Maui and the Big island, Fretz said.

DISCUSSION: *What do you think about the decision to spend $7.2 million to ship endangered birds from Kauai to Maui and the Big Island? Join the conversation.

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