State conservation enforcement officers are investigating the destruction of four endangered Hawaiian vines in the Mauna Loa
Forest Reserve near Puu
Huluhulu, the site where protesters have been blocking Mauna Kea Access Road for the last two months.
Additionally, officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources said Thursday there’s evidence other rare plants in the area have been trampled.
“Intentional or not, this damage is happening and it’s very concerning,” DLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case said. “There’s really just no way to have hundreds of people every day, often thousands, in sensitive natural areas like Puu Huluhulu and the adjoining areas off Mauna Kea Access Road without this kind of harm resulting.”
Case and Hawaii island members of her department described the impacts Thursday at a news conference in Hilo.
Contacted afterward, protest leader Andre Perez said the kiai, or “protectors,” have taken great care to
protect the Puu Huluhulu cinder cone and the surrounding area, especially after the first week when the impact of the crowds grew evident.
“They want to paint a picture that we’re having a negative impact,” he said. “They’re trying to find ways to get us out of here.”
On the other hand, Perez said, “We also understand how critically important our endangered species are.”
Protesters have been blocking the access road since mid-July in an effort to prevent construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope on a mountain many of them consider sacred. At times the protest has attracted thousands of TMT opponents who also view the project as a symbol of Native Hawaiian oppression.
Also on Thursday the Hawaii County Police Department announced that it has issued 2,237 citations and arrested 24 during stepped-up traffic enforcement linked to the Puu Huluhulu protest over the last four weeks.
The department said the effort last week resulted in 431 citations and five arrests and will continue for the duration of the protest along Daniel K. Inouye Highway, formerly Saddle Road.
Half of last week’s citations (214) were for speeding, police said. One of the arrests was for driving under the influence, while the rest were for court warrants.
In another development, two Maunakea Observatories Support Services vehicles were vandalized while parked at the agency’s office on Makaala Street in Hilo, the University of Hawaii reported.
A 2017 Toyota Sienna and a 2018 Nissan Frontier were damaged on the same Aug. 31-to-Sept. 1 night with multiple pin holes poked into the gas tanks, allowing a slow leaking of fuel. Damage was estimated at a combined $3,300, according to incident reports. Police are investigating.
Regarding the endangered plants, state officials said the loss of the anunu vine, a plant on the federal Endangered Species List, is most alarming because there are perhaps only five populations of the species remaining, all on the Big Island.
The vine and other rare and endangered plants were planted on state land by federal natural resource teams that manage threatened and endangered species in the area, officials said.
But as many as 2,400 people have been around Puu Huluhulu at any given time in the past seven weeks, officials estimated.
State Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement Officer Edwin Shishido said he and another officer Aug. 21 discovered the four anunu vines that appeared to have been cut or ripped from koa trees. Other plants appeared to be trampled.
Ian Cole, East Hawaii wildlife manager with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said the Puu Huluhulu region is likely one of the flyway resting areas for the Hawaiian goose, but there is evidence to suggest that the nene are avoiding the area around the protest site.
“It’s not surprising that they’re looking for different foraging areas,” he said. “There are too many people around for their comfort.”
Cole said entomologists also report that the endemic Hawaiian wolf spider, which inhabits the area’s lava fields, may be changing its behavior and is being forced out of its natural habitat due to the large number of people camping and walking in the area.
Researchers previously confirmed that the spider moved away from the vicinity of a hale built by protesters at Halepohaku, about 6 miles from the current protest site, officials said. They recorded a drop in the number of spiders and an increase in invasive insects.
Cole said there’s also a concern that the crowds will lead to the introduction of endangered species such as fire ants and coqui frogs.
“The way to mitigate the problem is for people to leave the area,” Case said.
But protest leader Perez said the group is doing its best to care for the land.
In the first week, the Puu Huluhulu trail was closed down and guided tours were allowed only on a pre-existing gravel road that winds around the backside of the cinder cone.
What’s more, shoe cleaners were brought in to help remove seeds from the heels of shoes, along with spray bottles filled with rubbing alcohol to disinfect footwear, he said.
Perez, who helped plant 100,000 native species over seven years as a restoration technician on the Kahoolawe cleanup project, said he doesn’t think the protesters were necessarily at fault for the loss of the endangered plants. Out-plantings of species such as the anunu are notoriously difficult to keep alive, he said, and there have been at least a couple of significant storms that could have played a role in the losses.
He said the endangered plants should be marked with ribbon to help ensure they are not stepped on. Perhaps the protesters could work with the state in making that happen, he said.
During the Hilo press conference, Shishido praised the protest group for restricting access to the cinder cone, and he said he was open to working with them to help steer clear of the rare plants.
As for the citations, Perez thanked the police for helping to make the highway safer. And regarding the vandalized Maunakea Support Services cars,
Perez said he highly doubted the protesters were involved.
“It’s not us,” he said. “Those activities are not in alignment with our practice of kapu aloha (nonviolent protest) that we are reminded about every day. We do not condone that kind of behavior, and I hope they find the culprits.”