Lawsuit goals to guard Hawaii’s iiwi hen from extinction

The Center for Biodiversity is suing the federal government as part of the nonprofit group’s efforts to protect Hawaii’s Iiwi, one of 17 species of forest birds native to the critically endangered islands.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court on Wednesday, aims to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to identify a critical habitat for the legendary honey herb, known for its bright red plumage, and a recovery plan develop for its long-term survival.

The federal authority had to do this when it listed the iiwi as “threatened” in 2017 under the law on endangered species.

With its curved beak and spectacular plumage, the IIWI is a species of Hawaiian honey herb endemic to the islands. As seen here on a Lehua flower, the bird is in decline due to its susceptibility to mosquito-borne diseases such as avian malaria. Jack Jeffrey Photography

The main culprits for their deaths are invasive, disease-causing mosquitoes that were introduced to Hawaii. Avian malaria has decimated Hawaii’s honey herbs and other forest bird populations.

The iiwi and similar species have gradually taken refuge in higher, cooler areas where the mosquitoes cannot reach them. However, researchers say that climate change is warming these habitats and allowing the mosquitoes to reach the birds.

The centre’s filing also indicates the gradual decline of Hawaii’s native ohia trees. Iiwi survive mainly on the nectar of the Lehua flowers of these trees. However, at least a million ohia have died in recent years, mostly on the island of Hawaii, due to the spread of rapid ohia death.

Despite these perilous circumstances, the Iiwi have a much better chance of survival if they are given critical habitat in these upper forest areas and are protected “to the fullest extent of the law,” said Maxx Phillips, the Center’s Hawaii director and attorney.

This habitat could be preserved by fencing and planting the trees the iiwi need, she said. The center had submitted its intention to sue in October if no action was taken.

One possible long-term plan to save Hawaii’s forest birds is to sterilize the mosquitoes that have conquered the islands. However, the birds will need federal protection to survive in the near future, Phillips said.

“The saddest thing for me is to hear these forests remain silent,” added Phillips, who grew up in Hawaii. The species makes a characteristic crackling sound, she said. “They are talkative birds.”

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