The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the iiwi, a red honeycreeper unique to Hawaii, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the agency announced Monday.

The bird used to be commonly found in the forests here, but avian malaria and habitat loss have caused its population to plummet.

The federal listing, if approved, could lead to more funding and conservation efforts focused on saving the bird.

Iiwi on the ohia tree a few feet from the bird lookout point on the Hosmer Grove trail on Maui.
An iiwi perches on an ohia tree near a lookout point on the Hosmer Grove trail on Maui. Courtesy: Norman Chock

Hawaii, often called the “endangered species capital of the world,” has lost dozens of bird species to extinction, and now climate change is exacerbating the problem.

Mosquitoes carrying malaria are able to move higher up in altitude as temperatures warm, threatening the iiwi, which are unable to seek refuge in even-higher elevations due to lack of appropriate habitat, federal officials said in a press release.

“With focused and timely action by local and federal partners, we still have the opportunity to save the iiwi, as well as the other plants and animals that share its habitat,” said Mary Abrams, field supervisor for the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office, in the release. “The proposed listing of this bird – once so abundant across the Hawaiian Islands – should be a call to action for all Hawaiians and others to address the threats posed to all our forest birds.”

The decision to propose listing the honeycreeper as threatened came after a 2010 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity that sought protections for the bird.

“The iiwi is a spectacular, iconic Hawaiian bird that desperately needs Endangered Species Act protection to survive,” said the center’s Loyal Mehrhoff in a separate press release. “But the good news is that if we protect it, it has a good shot at dodging extinction. A recent study by the Center found that the majority of U.S. birds with endangered species protection are improving.”

An iiwi feeds on the lehua blossom of the ohia tree in Hakalua Forest Reserve.
An iiwi feeds on the lehua blossom of an ohia tree in Hakalua Forest Reserve. Courtesy: Bettina Arrigoni/Flickr

Earlier this month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress voted to support increased conservation efforts for Hawaii’s threatened birds.

The union is comprised of 1,300 member organizations and 16,000 experts from around the world. The Congress met in Honolulu for a 10-day event, the first time the quadrennial meeting has been held in the United States.

“Mosquitos are wreaking havoc on the iiwi and other native bird populations in Hawaii, and the Service is continuing to search for a solution to the problem so we can save these species that play such an important role in making Hawaii such a special place,” Abrams said. “We all must be diligent in the search for a solution to the mosquito problem that affects humans and animals alike.”

More than 40 bird species in the Pacific Islands are listed as endangered or threatened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says at least 32 bird species have gone extinct in Hawaii since 1778.

The iiwi is one of more than 50 species of honeycreepers that evolved, “in a spectacular example of adaptive radiation, from a single finch-like bird that colonized Hawaii 2.5 million to 4 million years ago,” the Center for Biological Diversity release stated.

Two out of three Hawaiian honeycreepers are extinct, and most of those remaining are either already listed as threatened or endangered, or are declining, the release stated.

“The iiwi has seen a 92 percent decline on Kauai in the past 25 years and a 34 percent decline on Maui,” the release stated.

“Protected areas that we once thought could save the iiwi are now expected to be uninhabitable in the future because of the expanding range of mosquitoes and malaria,” Mehrhoff said. “So it’s crucial for the iiwi to get the help it needs to avoid extinction and recover. This will require removing or greatly reducing the threat from introduced mosquito-borne diseases, as well as restoring and protecting native Hawaiian forests.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public comments on its proposed rule until Nov. 21. Comments can be sent online here under Docket Number FWS-R1-ES-2016-0057 or by mail or in person to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R1–ES–2016–0057, Division of Policy, Performance, and Management Programs; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS; BPHC; 5275 Leesburg Pike; Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.

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