Invasive species eradication effort creates clash of rights

One resident’s attempts to keep employees from invasive species agencies off his Huelo property have created a clash of rights between communities wanting to eradicate invasive species, and individuals opposed to the methods used to fight them.

Last month, Huelo resident Brian Bardellini filed a temporary restraining order against employees from the Maui Invasive Species Council and the Hawaii Ant Lab, alleging that they had trespassed on his property, threatened him and sprayed chemicals on him while treating little fire ants in the area. The order was dismissed Aug. 1 due to lack of evidence, but the dispute has highlighted a growing discussion between residents, businesses and elected officials on controlling invasive species “in a way that’s fair for everyone,” former MISC manager Teya Penniman said.

“(When) we have situations where lots of neighbors are working to control coqui frogs or little fire ants, and there’s one property that doesn’t, we hear residents saying to us, ‘What can we do to change this?'” Penniman said. “It’s an issue that we’ve faced for many years, but this year we’re seeing a lot of people raise it in different sectors.”

For some residents, particularly those with organic crops, the issue is not only with the little fire ants, but with the chemicals used to eradicate them.

Since the tiny, red-orange pests were discovered on Hawaii island in 1999, they’ve made their way onto Maui, Oahu and Kauai, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. They nest in a variety of habitats, including trees and potted plants, and are about as long as the thickness of a penny. Their affects are economic, social and environmental-they leave humans with painful welts, damage crops and cause blindness in animals. They force animals to flee their habitats, making it difficult for residents to hunt for food.

Cas Vanderwoude, research manager of the Hilo-based Hawaii Ant Lab, said that the ants have spread so far across Hawaii island that full eradication is no longer possible – only treatment. Maui, however, still has a chance, he said.

Little fire ants were first found in Waihee in 2009, then in Nahiku in 2014 and in Huelo and Hana in 2015. Teams have been working in the areas to treat and destroy colonies, and most residents have been supportive of efforts, MISC manager Adam Radford said. At the beginning of last year, they began to treat the Huelo area, according to court documents.

A question of chemicals

Bardellini and his wife, who has medical conditions affecting toxin release and gets sick around pesticides, had recently started renting in the neighborhood. Before the couple moved there, they were not told that the property had a little fire ant infestation, Bardellini said.

Radford said both Bardellini and the property owner who leases to him initially allowed workers to come on to the property to treat ants. Bardellini, however, said he wanted to use a more natural vendor but was forced to comply with MISC and the ant lab’s methods.

In his petition for a restraining order filed July 18, Bardellini said that he and Alika Atay, currently a candidate for the Maui County Council, run a “Hawaiian indigenous natural agriculture kalo and Hawaiian canoe crop farm.”

“My practice is aloha aina and malama aina, and I can never support anything that is not pono for our people, air, land, plants, animals or water,” Bardellini wrote to The Maui News.

He preferred boric acid to treat the ants because it was a more natural product, and said there are many available ant pesticides containing boric acid. He pointed out that a Hawaii Ant Lab fact sheet acknowledges that boric acid “accumulates gradually in insects until a lethal dose is reached.”

Vanderwoude said boric acid is natural and can control home infestations, but is more toxic than other chemicals and can kill people and domestic pets. He added that it’s not effective in eradicating ant colonies. Once the foraging ants eat the poison and get sick, they stop sharing the food with others in the colony.

“They’ll probably die but the ones in the nest won’t,” Vanderwoude said.

To counter this ant survival strategy, MISC and the ant lab usually start with Tango, which contains the active ingredient methoprene. Once mixed with the lab’s bait, the final methoprene concentration is 0.25 percent. The chemical causes the queens to stop laying eggs, keeping the colony from growing. Because ants have more than one stomach, they don’t get sick from the bait and continue to feed on and share it. Only when the food is digested in the main stomach does the ant get sick, Vanderwoude said.

Next, eradication teams use Provaunt, which contains the active ingredient indoxacarb, to paralyze and kill the ants. When mixed into the bait, the indoxacarb concentration is 0.18 percent. He said that the ant lab needs a special permit to use the chemical because fire ant control is not listed on the label.

However, Provaunt, ProBait and Siesta, which are other treatments used by the ant lab, are not allowed on crops, Bardellini pointed out.

“That’s correct, that’s why we use Tango on properties that have food plants,” Vanderwoude said. “Whether it’s a tree or a crop, we apply only Tango because it’s registered for use on food crops.”

Vanderwoude said that the ant lab uses “exceptionally safe products.” A rat would have to ingest “13 times its own body weight in methoprene bait in order to have a chance of dying,” and indoxacarb “is in the same ballpark.” He added that the two chemicals don’t stay in the environment as long as boric acid – which comes from the element boron – breaking down in a matter of hours as compared to years.

MISC and the ant lab were about to switch over to Provaunt in the Huelo area, but Bardellini was against it, and Vanderwoude decided to stick with Tango.

But, Bardellini said, the eradication teams wouldn’t stop coming. He sent them a cease-and-desist letter April 4, “notifying them not to trespass on our property,” as stated in his petition. However, he said, workers trespassed twice in April and again in May and were filmed by Atay.

“When asked to leave, they sprayed chemicals on my uncovered skin and tried to assault and fight me,” Bardellini said. “We were told they will keep coming and trespassing and that we ‘can’t stop them.'”

In asking for a restraining order, Bardellini said that he and his wife “live in near constant fear, anxiety and distress.”

However, the court ruled that Bardellini did not prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that he’d been “harassed” by MISC and ant lab employees. Video taken of the confrontation revealed that it was the employees who “tried to leave the scene, only to be confronted by (Bardellini) with belligerence.” Atay’s testimony also contradicted Bardellini’s account of employees spraying him with chemicals and trying to pick a fight.

The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning that Bardellini could not bring the same charge back to court. Bardellini wrote to The Maui News that he was “very disappointed to hear that multiple eyewitnesses and a video is not enough evidence.”

For the time being, the eradication teams will just take care of neighboring properties, Vanderwoude said.

Eradication and private rights

Vanderwoude said several steps must take place before treating an invasive species. First, workers survey the area and draw up boundary lines where there are ants. Next they meet with residents of the area, lay out their treatment plan and ask for community consent.

“Our policy has always been cooperative,” Penniman said. “We don’t go where we’re not wanted. We rely on the cooperation of landowners. This community has a history of organic farming and . . . even those people understand the threat of little fire ants and have been extremely cooperative.”

If an individual declines consent, MISC “might send a certified letter to the owner explaining the situation,” or ask an elected official to do so, Radford said.

According to Hawaii law, it’s the job of the state Department of Agriculture to address invasive species. If someone refuses treatment, the department can get a court order, but that hasn’t happened since 1999, when a virus called bunchy top was affecting banana plants on Hawaii island, department Chairman Scott Enright said. Court orders are rare because the department doesn’t often come across strong opposition in its treatment of invasive species and diseases, he said.

But since MISC is part of the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, which is under several different departments, its authority is unclear, said Council Member Don Guzman, who’s working on legislation to address the problem. Because the Department of Agriculture is underfunded, the county relies mainly on MISC to tackle its invasive species problem.

“A formal procedure needs to be created,” Guzman said. “Because what you have right now is that MISC is a quasi-department that works collectively with several state departments, but there’s nowhere in state law that gives them the black and white authority to go out and do it.”

Guzman said that, within the next couple of weeks, he plans to meet with the state attorney general, the Department of Agriculture and MISC to work out an agreement that would let MISC “step into the shoes of the Department of Agriculture” and get more authority to go on a property if there’s an infestation. However, he said, there’s opportunity for compromise – the homeowner could be allowed to suggest a natural method and let MISC do an analysis to see if it works.

“You’ve got to respect other ideas, other beliefs on how they should treat the aina,” Guzman said.

Council Member Elle Cochran, who chairs the council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee, said that “somehow there’s got to be a discussion on all of this.”

“If that person’s business is affecting others in a negative way, that’s when it can become a problem,” she said. “But we don’t want to barge in on anyone’s private property. We want to protect the private person, too.”

Cochran said she doesn’t like using chemicals, but said it was better to use a small amount of chemicals to stop an invasive species at the source than to have to use larger amounts once the pest has spread to wider areas.

The eventual costs are what concern Radford, who said many on Hawaii island are wondering why the little fire ant problem wasn’t addressed sooner.

“Any little fire ant infestation poses a threat to the rest of Maui,” Radford said. “Recent economic studies at the University of Hawaii estimated that without ramped-up efforts to control (little fire ants), economic costs will exceed $140 million over the next 10 years, and mitigation costs could exceed $1 billion.”

Vanderwoude said that the methods being used on Maui have worked on Oahu and Kauai, where certain areas are close to eradication.

Different methods, common goal

In 2009, Christina Chang also faced the question of personal beliefs and community risk when little fire ants invaded her USDA-certified organic farm in Waihee – the very first documented case of the insect on Maui.

Chang is one of the founders of the nonprofit Lokelani Ohana, which offers programs for adults with developmental disabilities, and the farm is part of that mission. Bananas, ulu, coconut, mountain apple and many other crops are grown on property. The farm follows the principles of biodynamics, “a holistic, ecological and ethical approach,” according to the U.S.-based Biodynamic Association.

While Chang was reluctant to use chemicals, she was also concerned with the effect the ants were having on Hawaii island. She found an answer in compromise. MISC, the ant lab and the state Department of Agriculture allowed her to apply homeopathic remedies while they used some of their own chemical treatments. Chang took samples of fire ants, burned them into an ash and created a homeopathic remedy spray. She strengthened the soil with barrel compost, a technique developed to prevent radiation in plants after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

“We were successful eradicating it in a year,” she said. “We believe it was through our combined efforts.”

She said that invasive species teams “never” forced their way onto her property or made her use their chemicals. The Department of Agriculture also ran monthly tests, “at our request and their expense,” on the farm’s fruits to determine when they could safely be sent to market.

“Without them, we would’ve never been able to save our farm,” she said.

But after five fire-ant-free years, ants showed up again in mango trees at the front of the property that Chang said needed to be trimmed. The farm is currently undergoing treatment. Once it’s over, Chang said she will once again turn to natural practices to re-enliven the soil.

“Our philosophy on this farm . . . is that we’re stewards of the land,” Chang said. “We gave up our organic status. That isn’t what’s most important. What’s most important is saving your land and your farm, and keeping it from spreading.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

* Little fire ants. In Huelo resident Brian Bardellini’s temporary restraining order case against employees of the Hawaii Ant Lab and the Maui Invasive Species Committee, the court did not rule that Bardellini confronted employees in video evidence or that witness Alika Atay contradicted Bardellini’s testimony. This was according to Jack Naiditch, attorney for the employees. The 2nd Circuit District Court only dissolved the temporary restraining order “for insufficient evidence,” according to the court order issued after the hearing. A story published on Page A1 and continued on A3 on Monday incorrectly attributed this information.

The Maui News apologizes for the error.