Fighting the coqui frog

The Maui Invasive Species Committee is tripling to quadrupling resources and working crews devoted to eradicating coqui frogs from the heavily infested Maliko Gulch area over the next five years, officials said.

“We’re at a critical juncture,” Manager Adam Radford said Thursday. “We have to answer critical questions, and we’re ramping up to a scale that’s never been attempted in the state or the world to my knowledge, so the question is: How will that work?”

The tiny screeching frogs infest an area about 4 miles from Kaluanui Road to Maliko Bay, and committee officials believe that if the problem is not dealt with now, the frogs will continue to multiply and mirror the uncontrollable populations on the Big Island. Work has been done to generally keep the frogs in the gulch, but numbers continue to grow and many are popping up in other areas around the island.

The committee ramped up efforts this year to make progress in the gulch, thanks to $1.2 million appropriated by Maui County toward eradication efforts. About 100,000 pounds of citric acid were delivered to the group last week. Workers plan to use all of it in the next four months.

“It’s a really exciting time for us to really, really make a difference for Maui,” Radford said. “We’re incredibly appreciative to the county for stepping up and for their support.”

Estimates for eliminating Maui’s coqui frogs range from $4.6 million to $15 million, MISC officials said.

The drastic price range is partly due to a number of “unknowns,” including what will happen to nearby sugar cane fields when Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. shuts down late this year and stops burning cane fields, Radford said.

Workers have recently been given access to the fields surrounding the gulch, and officials are working with HC&S as well as East Maui Irrigation to remove the frogs’ habitat.

While the number of frogs in the gulch are innumerable and vary from area to area, more than 22,000 exist in an acre, Radford said. Workers respond to weekly calls over suspected coqui frogs around the island. Many turned out to be other species of frogs, but now more than ever they are coqui, he said.

“If we stopped today, by next summer many communities now unaffected would have a significant problem, and it would be beyond control given current resources and techniques,” he said. “If MISC hadn’t been doing work all this time, they would be all over Haiku, if not all of Maui.”

Over the years, frogs have found ways to escape the gulch through neighboring properties, plant exchanges, irrigation ditches and other methods. On Tuesday night, a man reported a coqui frog had been keeping him up at night for at least a couple weeks on his Keawakapu property, state officials said.

Mike Pruett, plant quarantine inspector for the state Department of Agriculture, said that the man tried to treat the issue himself with citric acid spray, but finally called state agriculture officials. When Pruett and a few other inspectors arrived at the house, he said he could hear the frog loud and clear.

“We could hear it really clear outside on the road already,” he said. “I could see how it could be keeping up neighbors . . . and that was just one. I can imagine a number of them together. It is a high piercing sound, so I can see how it can cause issues. I’m just glad they got a hold of us.”

Although the coqui is only about the size of a quarter, a single male frog has an 80- to 90-decibel screech – about as loud as an alarm clock. The frogs call continuously from dusk until dawn.

Eliminating frogs has become a daily chore for many Haiku residents living near the gulch, including friends Dave DeLeon and Tracy Stice.

DeLeon, who serves as the government affairs director for the Realtors Association of Maui, and Stice, a past president of both the Maui and Hawaii associations, have actively sought help combating the noisy frog from county officials and state legislators. One key issue that has drawn their attention is a few neighbors who have declined to control frog populations on their properties and refused access to invasive species workers.

“I kill them, and a week later the frogs are replaced by the hoard coming off of my neighbors’ property so it’s like an endless deal,” DeLeon said. “You can’t eradicate if there’s properties untreated – you can barely maintain.”

Stice has asked lawmakers to enact a law that would give workers access to infested private properties. He said that he plans to bring the issue up during the Hawaii Association of Realtors’ Government Affairs Committee meeting Oct. 20. He hopes to have proposed legislation ready before the next legislative session.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll get it done before then,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to drive it and get it going. It’s going to really take support from the Neighbor Islands, though, because the Oahu guys just don’t get it.”

State Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who represents Molokai, Lanai and East Maui, has spoken with Maui real estate agents about the issue and said that she has no problem with giving access to workers to eradicate frogs, “if that’s the consensus.”

DeCoite said that the House Committee on Agriculture, of which she is a member, has not had a full discussion on the issue yet, but she expects to have one when the panel meets in November.

“I’d like to do it because it is my district,” she said of the legislation. “It’s a matter of getting support from other members, but if not, I still don’t have a problem submitting that amendment myself.”

In addition to homeowners fighting off increasing numbers of frogs, property values and Haiku’s real estate market are in jeopardy, real estate agents said.

Robert Lightbourn, general manager of Coldwell Banker Island Properties, said that property values and quality of life have been affected by the frogs, though he could not say by how much. He said buyers are concerned with “what might happen or could happen or will happen” if the frogs are not dealt with soon.

“If it’s really noisy and uncontrollable, people aren’t going to be that excited to move into an area because their peace and quiet is going to be affected,” Lightbourn said.

Nursery owners and farmers have seen damage to their properties and businesses because of the frogs, including Howard’s Nurseries in Kula. The business was on Kokomo Road in Haiku until it moved in 2003.

“That frog has cost me millions and millions of dollars,” owner Howard Takishita said.

Takishita was a strong supporter of MISC in the late 1990s when the frogs appeared through the nursery trade. He spent millions inspecting plants and cleaning his property over the years, and finally cleared his property before selling it due to other issues.

“The last thing we did was lined the whole property with 2,000 pounds of hydrated lime,” he said of the acidic compound that is effective in killing the frog. “It was like snow.”

MISC has several methods of combating the frog in the steep and sloped gulch, including a giant sprinkler system that shoots a solution of citric acid and water from the rim to the bottom, Radford said. Workers also use a gravity-fed, fixed-line system, a spray hose, a helicopter and their own hands to eliminate frogs.

“All of those things are in place, and we’re essentially starting to utilize those in a coordinated attack,” he said.

Radford said that the group’s biggest hurdle will be recruiting committed workers and appealing to the entire community for support.

“We’re hiring and working cooperatively with agencies, but we’re really trying to empower the community,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.