5 Hawai‘i Animals Threatened by President Trump’s Announced Changes to the Endangered Species Act
It’s bad news for our Islands, the world’s endangered species capital.
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD
More than 400 endangered species live in Hawai‘i, and experts say President Donald Trump just made it harder for them to survive. Next month, Trump’s changes to the Endangered Species Act are expected to take effect, which would make it easier to remove plants and animals from the endangered list and weaken protections for them and critical habitats—unless lawsuits against the changes succeed (more on that later).
Hawai‘i is the endangered species capital of the world, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Combine incredible habitat variation (the Islands have 27 out of 38 possible ecosystems) with geographic isolation, and the state is a sweet spot for endemic species. But with so many ecosystems packed into a small area, animal habitats are also small and easy to disturb.
“These species define what Hawai‘i is because you can’t find them anywhere else in the world,” says Sam Gon, a senior scientist and cultural adviser at The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. Each species is crucial to the balance of its ecosystem and many are important to the identity and culture of Native Hawaiians. Here are five animals that could be at the greatest risk of extinction in Hawai‘i because of the new rules.
PHOTO BY TOM DOVE, COURTESY OF THE HAWAI‘I AUDUBON SOCIETY.
This small yellow honeycreeper is now only found in a small area on the slopes of Maunakea. Trump’s rollback of protections could allow construction projects on parts of the palila’s critical habitat. Improvements to the Big Island’s Saddle Road encroached on the area and were only allowed after the Army agreed to plant more māmane trees. David Henkin, staff attorney at Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific office, calls this revision “death by a thousand cuts.” Endangered species need all of their habitat to survive into future generations, he says.
2. Hawaiian monk seal
PHOTO: DIANE GABRIEL
Down to a third of their historic population level, Hawaiian monk seals have already lost their Caribbean cousins. Some Hawaiians consider the seals an embodiment of Kū, the deity of war, governance and leadership. The marine mammals live primarily in the Northwestern Hawaiian atolls, where their pupping beaches are slowly eroding as sea levels rise. Henkin says the new Endangered Species Act would limit protections for monk seals because it requires scientific certainty to protect against future threats. This is a challenge because the effects of climate change are difficult to know exactly.
3. Two of Maui’s endemic birds
PHOTO: COURTESY OF MAUI FOREST BIRD RECOVERY PROJECT, ZACH PEZZILLO
Kiwikiu (Maui parrotbill) and ‘ākohekohe (crested honeycreeper) populations have declined by more than half in just the past two or three decades, according to a recent Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife report. Their biggest threat is from avian malaria, more common now because increasing temperatures on Haleakalā mean mosquitoes can survive higher up on the mountain.
4. Sea turtles
PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOAA
Sea turtles that lay eggs on our beaches are also in danger of losing nesting areas because of rising sea levels. Only about 100 critically endangered hawksbill females nest in Hawai‘i every year. The threatened green sea turtle is more common, but Gon says it makes sense to also focus on them, too, because they are more stable than endangered ones and have higher chances of survival. Where hawksbills will be protected from development, green sea turtles won’t be.
Red feathers from the ‘i‘iwi once adorned the cloaks of ali‘i, symbolizing their rank and power. The ‘ō‘ō provided the yellow feathers, and is already extinct. ‘I‘iwi are on the federal threatened list and the state’s endangered list. They’re susceptible to avian malaria at low elevations where ‘ōhi‘a lehua bloom. While populations are declining, the stricter new criteria mean they’re unlikely to become classified as federally endangered.
The changes, though, may not be a done deal. Henkin says many similar moves have been struck down in previous lawsuits. Massachusetts and California have filed suits and Earthjustice plans to do the same.