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Hawaiian stilt could shed endangered status

Agency proposing to downlist bird to threatened category

An ae‘o or Hawaiian stilt dips its beak into the water at Kanaha Pond while searching for food Saturday morning. A federal conservation agency hopes to downlist the species from endangered to threatened. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

After years of encouraging trends for a bird that nests at Kealia and Kanaha ponds on Maui, a federal conservation agency hopes to downlist the species from endangered to threatened.

Survey data and a recent population viability analysis indicate that the population of the ae’o, or Hawaiian stilt, has been “stable to increasing for several decades” across the state, with the trend expected to continue as long as conservation efforts are ongoing, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which is proposing the change in the bird’s status.

Black and white with long pink legs, the ae’o can be found at Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge and Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary. An estimated 350 to 550 of the birds can be found on Maui any given year, with the population sometimes reaching as high as 750 or as low as 300, said Megan Laut, Pacific Islands Conservation and Restoration Team manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She said the population varies depending on the time of year, annual fluctuations, botulism outbreaks, flooding and drought, among other threats.

Statewide, there are between 1,500 to 2,000 ae’o, Laut said.

A pair of Hawaiin stilts land at Kanaha Saturday. An estimated 350 to 550 of the birds can be found on Maui any given year.

She said the ae’o population has been stable for about 20 years, with natural fluctuations.

The ae’o is a wading bird that can be found on all the main Hawaiian islands except Kahoolawe. It was originally listed as endangered in 1970 due to the destruction and alteration of habitat, hunting, introduced predatory animals and nonnative birds and disease, according to a Fish and Wildlife news release.

Laut said ae’o on Lanai and Molokai can be found primarily around the islands’ wastewater treatment facilities. Wetland habitat restoration and management is needed on Molokai to create safe places for the birds to nest and carry out their life history, Laut added.

“State-managed wetlands and national wildlife refuges have been essential for the recovery of the ae’o,” said Mary Abrams, acting field service supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office. “The State of Hawaii and other conservation partners have been key in helping the ae’o move toward recovery. Protected wetlands and continued invasive predator control are essential for protecting the bird into the future.”

Laut said that the proposal to downlist the bird under the federal Endangered Species Act includes a rule that facilitates conservation and management of ae’o in current and future locations through increased flexibility. This will be done by removing the federal take prohibition under certain conditions, she said.

“These flexibilities are aimed at encouraging support for habitat management and providing federal and nonfederal entities with a way to reduce human-wildlife conflicts,” she said in an email.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently seeking public comment on the proposed change in status until May 24. Comments may be submitted electronically via the Federal eRulemaking portal at www.regulations.gov or via U.S. mail or hand delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R1-ES-2018-06571, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

All comments and material received become part of the public record; personally identifiable information such as addresses, phone numbers and email addresses may be made publicly available at any time.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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