A plan by University of Hawaii officials to help bring an endangered owl back to the West Oahu campus is coming under fire from a group of Ewa Beach residents who say the plan falls far short of creating protected habitat for the sacred owl.
Efforts to protect the pueo, the Hawaiian short-eared owl, also suffered a setback when the Legislature adjourned earlier this month without putting in place a hoped-for new study of the owl statewide and money for environmental rehabilitation at the West Oahu campus.
UH has been replanting trees, grasses and shrubs in the gulches on the campus and also plans to offer courses focused on caring for the land, according to UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.
That effort has been ongoing since January.
But Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner Michael Lee and members of the nonprofit Kanehili Cultural Hui say what UH is doing is not sufficient. They say recent reports identified the existence of the owl at the university and that it’s important to create a habitat protection program on the campus.
Lee said he wants the university to stop development on 150-acres of the property and designate the area for a habitat conservation preserve.
Lee, who notes that the pueo is the UH West Oahu school mascot, says the area where the Hunehune Gulch and Kaloi Gulch converge has been a documented pueo habitat for centuries.
“They say they’re going to do everything to protect the pueo so now is their chance to step up and show what they say is real,” Lee said.
Known as the “bird of wisdom,” short-eared owls have a special place in Hawaii’s culture and were once prevalent throughout the Hawaiian Islands, including the Ewa Beach and Kapolei area. But today it is listed as endangered on Oahu and declines have also been observed in Europe and North America.
Some causes of decline are urbanization, loss of habitat and disease.
The species was admired by the ancient Hawaiians as an aumakua or ancestral guardian, that would protect families and villages. Pueo also help control the populations of rodents and other species that cause damage to agricultural crops.
Researchers say that it is probably the only surviving native bird in the state that can help control the rodent population for farmers.
Melissa Price, an assistant professor in the UH Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, said there are other urgent threats affecting the bird besides development.
Pueo nest on the ground, which makes their eggs easy targets for mongooses and cats, she said.
“If we’re not protecting the nests then you’re not going to have a stable population so I think that’s the most important thing,” Price said.
She added that efforts to help the owls shouldn’t be focused completely on West Oahu.
“If we care about a species we need to care about it at the scale that matters for the species,” she said.
Last year, Price, post-doctoral researcher Javier Cotin and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife launched the Pueo Project to investigate the population size and habitat of the owl. The public was asked to help by reporting pueo sightings on the project’s website or through an application called eBird.
The researchers observed 11 pueo on Oahu — five were sightings in Leeward Oahu while the remaining six were detected in Kailua and Kaneohe. A total of 90 records of pueo were gathered from the project website and eBird.
Price said that at least one or two pueo were spotted on the UH West Oahu campus.
Although it’s estimated that there are about 800 pueo on Oahu, Price said the “margin for error is pretty wide” since they weren’t able to study more locations.
“We need multiple years of surveys and a much bigger effort where were paying more than just one person to be out there doing surveys,” she said.
Researchers and advocates were hoping Senate Bill 2078 would have provided a step forward for studying the pueo. The bill requested funds for DLNR and the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to support a two-year statewide study of pueo. The measure died in conference committee at the end of the session.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, who introduced the bill, said he is not opposed to creating a pueo conservation habitat, but thinks more research needs to be completed first.
“You can’t really talk about the location of a habitat until you got those breeding and foraging studies to pinpoint where they are,” Gabbard said. “Where they’re hanging out, where they’re breeding, where they’re eating and all that stuff.”
Price said researchers received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study agricultural lands on Oahu and Maui for two years. The goal is to determine the effects the pueo are having on pest species, she said.
She added that they also received funding from the Navy to study pueo on its lands on Oahu.
Although many agree that pueo need to be protected, critics say the measure only scratched the surface of a bigger issue about the owl’s Ewa plains home, Lee said.
In 1996, a survey documented 17 species of birds in an 1,300-acre site in East Kapolei, which included the UH West Oahu property. Owl pellets were also found, but no investigation was made to verify if they were pueo.
Another survey of the UH West Oahu property in 2006 said no endangered or threatened species were observed. But sightings of pueo have been documented in videos and photos and was also reported in an interim report by DLNR and UH.
The university is aware of the pueo in the Ewa district and has enforced a protocol to monitor pueo in and around campus since 2016, UH West Oahu Chancellor Maenette Benham wrote in an email.
There has been no documentation of pueo nesting on the property, although the owl does hunt across the Ewa plains, she said.
Gabbard said he plans to re-introduce a bill to study owls in the 2019 session.
And Kanehili Cultural Hui plans to push another measure that didn’t receive a hearing this session. House Bill 2629 would require UH to create a habitat conservation habitat at its West Oahu campus.
Lee said the idea has already received unanimous support from the neighborhood boards of Kalaeloa and Makakilo.