State wildlife officials are concerned about native plants and animals being harmed during the ongoing demonstrations at Mauna Kea. Hundreds and often thousands have gathered on Mauna Kea Access Road across from Puu Huluhulu in opposition of the Thirty Meter Telescope. The are is a hub for native plants and animals.
“Early on in this protest we warned about the impact of endangered species to off trail activities, and there are a lot of people there. And intentional or not this damage is happening and it is very concerning,” said the Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case.
Case said that DLNR enforcement officers found evidence that the endangered Hawaiian Anunu vine was damaged at the Puu Huluhulu after an impromptu concert was held by Damien Jr. “gong” Marley visited the Mauna.
“On several days after (the concert), we got some of the biologists from PTA to go with us and we did go in there and they did notice that the vines were actually broken off or cut,” explained DLNR enforcement officer Edwin Shishido.
According to DLNR, the Anunu can only be found in five places on the Big Island and its the only place in the world that it grows.
Botanist Lyman Perry said there is also evidence that other native plants may have been harmed.
“We’ve worked with other federal agencies to plant other endangered plants on the puu and those are some of the plants that may have been trampled by peoples activity on the puu off of the established trails,” Perry said.
Although there has been no evidence of invasive species being introduced, it is a concern raised by DLNR officials. They said the thought of fire ants, koki frogs or anything like it is concerning.
Wildlife Manager Ian Cole said they’ve also seen evidence that the Hawaiian nene hasn’t been coming around the puu as often since the demonstrations began.
“(The nene) do frequent the Puu Huluhulu area. They seem to be avoiding it probably looking for other foraging areas right now,” Cole said.
“There’s really just no way to have hundreds of people every day often thousands in a sensitive natural areas like Puu Huluhulu and the adjoining areas off Mauna Kea Access Road without this kind of harm resulting,” Case said.
Case added that the only way to mitigate the problem is for people to leave the area.
Andre Perez has extensive experience in native plant restoration. He worked diligently on Kahoolawe restoring native plants there and is among the leaders of the Ku Kia’i Mauna movement. He said they are working diligently to protect the puu.
“The trail has been closed for the past six or seven weeks. Additional we are now running guided tours with the kanaka rangers taking the lead,” Perez said.
The guided tours ensure that everyone stays on the trail.
Perez said everyone who walks up the puu is required to wash their shoes first and tours only takes place several times a week.
Kanaka Rangers use a man-made gravel trail at the back of the puu to avoid areas where native plants have been planted close to the smaller trail a the front of the puu.
Perez is hoping to work with DLNR officials to make sure all native plants are recognized by all.
“We have heard from insiders that even PTA conservation staff have inadvertently caused damage to their own outplantings in the past. I’ve had similar experiences when I was restoration supervisor on Kaho’olawe. We found that as a mitigating factor, it’s important to mark critically rare and endangered outplantings with flag or ribbon when you have outplantings in public access areas.”
Perez pointed out that it is possible some of the plants also may have been damaged during recent storms, but realizes they do need to take responsibility for their role in drawing more crowds to the fragile area.
“I don’t want to make excuses. Is it possible that we may have cause the impact due to the increased public? Yes, it is possible. But we don’t really know for sure. But more important than that is what are we doing to do about it,” said Perez.
“We’re just as concerned as DOCARE, as the State, as the army, and we’re going to increase our mitigation efforts and hope to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”