UPDATED: A new Hawaii “keystone” plan aims to help the islands’ remaining forest bird species stave off extinction from avian malaria.

Speaking before Hawaii’s conservation community on Tuesday, an emotional U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced more federal help in the increasingly urgent effort to save native forest birds facing extinction, largely due to climate change.

The Department of the Interior, she said, has committed $16 million toward helping 12 honeycreeper species whose numbers have been battered by avian malaria under the agency’s new Hawaiian Forest Bird Conservation Keystone Initiative.

That includes $14 million in a long-term plan to help the birds released late last year, plus an added $2 million from this year, according to Interior officials. All of the funding comes from the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, they added.

Several of those imperiled species, including the ‘akikiki and the ‘akeke‘e on Kauai, have almost entirely vanished from Hawaii’s upland forests as warmer temperatures have driven disease-carrying mosquitos higher up the slopes.

Deb Haaland Secretary Interior Hawaii Conservation Conference
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland gets emotional talking about the plight of native forest birds going extinct before her keynote address at the Hawaii Conservation Conference in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Earlier this month, crews with the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project said they believe this could be the last season of field work in which they encounter the ‘akikiki in the wild.

“These birds aren’t just animals. To the Native Hawaiian community, they are ohana – family members and ancestors that must be revered and protected,” said Haaland, fighting back tears as she addressed Hawaii Conservation Conference attendees at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.

“But because of the climate crisis the forest ecosystems that they are connected with are changing dramatically,” she added.

The funding will boost efforts to deploy in the next few years a novel, bacteria-based approach aimed at suppressing the population of mosquitos carrying the malaria, Haaland said. It will also support moving surviving birds to habitat areas that haven’t been invaded by the mosquitos, which were first introduced to the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s.

Before Haaland spoke, several dozen conference attendees from Kauai wearing ceremonial Hawaiian kihei sashes delivered an oli, or chant, raising awareness to the plight of the island’s disappearing forest birds:

A Kauai delegation at the Hawaii Conservation Conference implores greater protections for forest birds with a traditional oli, or chant.

Haaland was deeply moved by the display.

“It was a call to action – that was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Haaland said after taking the stage. “Thank you all so much for having this in your hearts and showing us what we have to do.”

Only 17 of more than 50 documented honeycreeper species that evolved in Hawaii remain, with avian malaria the main culprit for their rapid, continuing decline. Overall, Hawaii has been dubbed the “endangered species capital of the world.”

The Hawaii keystone is one of several such “keystone” initiatives that Interior is launching across the U.S., she said. 

It builds on Interior’s previous Strategy for the Prevention of the Extinction of Hawaiian Birds, which the department released in December and included $14 million to the effort to stave off extinction.

As part of its Hawaii keystone, Interior will also integrate “the Native Hawaiian cultural perspective of caring for an endangered bird species just as you would a family member facing a life-threatening illness,” the release said.

Haaland is the first Native American in the U.S. to serve as a Cabinet secretary, and she stressed on Tuesday the importance of consulting local Indigenous groups and tribes on plans to protect land and natural resources.

“Indigenous knowledge must be at the center of our conservation efforts, as we restore a cultural balance to the lands and waters that sustain us,” she told the HCC crowd.

President Joe Biden’s administration, she added, aims “to ensure that Indigenous people have opportunities to weigh in before decisions are made that impact their communities because their voices, perspectives and knowledge deserve respect.”

Prior to Haaland’s remarks, Kawika Winter, a biocultural ecologist with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, told the conferees that Native Hawaiians have grappled with the loss of native forest birds due to the introduction of foreign species for more than 150 years.

“The fact is that every extinction inflicts yet another trauma on our Hawaiian people,” Winter said. “With every extinction in the forest … our language dies, and a species-specific tradition can no longer be passed on.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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