Federal wildlife officials have proposed that more than 275,000 acres of forest across Hawaii be designated critical habitat for the ‘i‘iwi bird, one of about a dozen native honeycreeper species currently headed toward extinction.

Conservationists with the Center for Biological Diversity heralded the long-awaited move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as key to saving the ‘i‘iwi. The nonprofit had sued the federal agency last year to propose a habitat as required by law for the bird, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

That lawsuit led to a deal in which the Fish and Wildlife Service would propose a critical habitat by December 2022. The ‘i‘iwi was listed as threatened in 2017, according to the suit.

apapane, mosquito, forest birds, avian malaria
The ‘i‘iwi is renowned for its curved bill and bright red plumage. Climate change and the demise of native ohia trees have left the species, like many other honeycreepers across Hawaii, facing extinction. Jack Jeffrey Photography

“Protecting the places the ‘i‘iwi calls home will give these beautiful birds their best chance at survival,” Maxx Phillips, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Hawaii director and staff attorney, said in a release.

“It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit, but the Service made the right call. As our forests fall quiet, federal officials must do everything possible to ensure these birds bounce back and stop sliding toward extinction,” Phillips added.

The iconic honeycreeper, known for its bright-red plumage, is among some 17 forest bird species native to the islands poised to disappear.

Their numbers have been decimated in recent years by avian malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses. Researchers say that warming temperatures from climate change are driving the insects higher and deeper into the birds’ forest habitats.

Compounding the problem for the ‘i‘iwi, according to both federal officials and conservationists, is the demise of native ohia trees across Hawaii. At least one million of those trees have perished across Hawaii due to the spread of rapid ohia death. The birds survive on the nectar of those trees’ lehua blossoms and they play an important role as pollinators of many native Hawaiian plants.

The ‘i‘iwi’s proposed critical habitat would encompass federal, state and private forest lands spread across three Hawaiian islands where the birds are still found: Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island.

iiwi ‘i‘iwi honeycreeper
This map from federal officials outlines the forest regions across Kauai, Maui and Hawaii proposed as critical habitat for the threatened ‘i‘iwi bird. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

All of the proposed area is currently occupied by the honeycreeper, according to Fish and Wildlife officials. More than 38% of that proposed area overlaps with the designated critical habitat for other endangered species, according to the federal agency.

Philip Taylor, a conservation biologist who works with the Army’s Natural Resources Program on Oahu, said that it makes sense to start with the three neighbor islands because they have the greater number of birds and better forest habitat.

“It’s better to start there, where the birds are,” Taylor said. “Oahu’s tough. There’s not a lot of acres left for native birds” with there being so many people and widespread development.

Taylor said he’s only seen ‘i‘iwi three times on Oahu since 2007, with all of those sightings occurring in the southern Waianae mountains. Further, it’s been more than a decade since the last reported sighting of an ‘i‘iwi on Hawaii’s most populous island, he added.

Designating critical habitat isn’t the same as creating a marine protected area, wilderness preserve, or some other conservation area as defined by the federal government. It also doesn’t change the ownership of that land, according to an explanation on critical habitat from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. Instead, it requires all federal agencies to make sure that any actions they take won’t affect the habitat area in a harmful way that would prevent the species’ recovery.

Fish and Wildlife, meanwhile, is scheduled to host a virtual public meeting on its proposal Feb. 10. Those interested in attending can register here. Members of the public can also submit comments on the proposal through Feb. 27 via this federal portal.

Fish and Wildlife separately announced last week that it aims to direct some $14 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help save 12 of the imperiled Hawaiian honeycreepers.

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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