In a new court settlement, federal wildlife officials have agreed to finally put forth by December 2022 a proposed critical habitat area that might rescue Hawaii’s imperiled ‘i‘iwi.

That proposal is already overdue by at least three years, according to court documents.

The deal announced in U.S. District Court on Thursday comes after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate that critical ‘i‘iwi habitat. Federal officials were required to take that step, plus create a recovery plan for the species, when they listed the ‘i‘iwi as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2017, the nonprofit group’s suit contended.

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

apapane, mosquito, forest birds, avian malaria
The ‘i‘iwi is a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper endemic to the islands. Seen here perching on a lehua blossom, the bird faces extinction due to mosquito-borne diseases like avian malaria. Jack Jeffrey Photography

“It’s a win for ‘i‘iwi. Definitely,” Maxx Phillips, the center’s Hawaii director and staff attorney, said of the agreement Thursday. “This settlement decision is a step in the right direction.” The public will be able to weigh in on the proposed habitat area once it’s announced, she added.

Phillips said she hoped that Thursday’s court deal could further serve as a model in efforts to bring other Hawaii honeycreepers and forest birds “back from the brink.”

The main culprits in their demise are invasive, disease-carrying mosquitos introduced to Hawaii. Avian malaria and other diseases have decimated the birds’ populations.

The ‘i‘iwi and similar species have gradually sought refuge at higher, cooler elevations where the mosquitos can’t reach them. But researchers say that climate change is warming those habitats and allowing the mosquitos to reach the birds.

“We help one, we can help them all,” Phillips said Thursday. 

In September, the U.S. government declared 23 species extinct. Nine of those were from Hawaii, including eight bird species.

“Time is of the essence,” Phillips said Thursday. “We can’t let bureaucratic foot-dragging result in any more species extinction.”

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