First, it was the nene goose, Hawaii’s state bird. Now it’s the Hawaiian hawk’s turn to mark a milestone of returning from the brink of extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed the Hawaiian hawk, or io, from its federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife after 53 years. On Jan. 2 the USFWS issued a “final rule,” the required procedure for any addition or removal from the list. Its removal is effective Feb. 3.
The USFWS said studies have shown rangewide population estimates for the io have been stable for at least 30 years.
“We found that their population has been stable, and so we have determined that they no longer need the protections of (the Endangered Species Act) and that they are an adaptable species able to use multiple habitats,” said Megan Laut, USFWS conservation and restoration team manager, Pacific islands. “From the surveys that have occurred, we’ve been able to see, especially over the past 10 years, the population has remained relatively stable.”
The Hawaiian hawk (Buteo solitarius) — revered locally as an aumakua, or guardian spirit — is the only hawk that lives and hunts in Hawaii’s forests. It once flew on six of the Hawaiian isles, but can be found only on Hawaii island today.
Conservationists celebrated the news, tempered by concerns about the future of the Endangered Species Act.
Jacob Malcolm, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife, hailed the delisting as a success story for the species and the Endangered Species Act.
“The Endangered Species Act is our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction,” he said in a statement. “With nearly 1 million species at risk of extinction, increased funding for the Endangered Species Act is needed now more than ever.”
The nonprofit is still concerned, however, about the Trump administration’s sweeping rewrite of ESA regulations that weaken those protections.
Both the nene and io were listed as endangered species in 1967.
The nene population dwindled down to fewer than 30 at one time but is now at about 2,800 due to decades of conservation efforts.
Late last year the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the nene’s downlisting from endangered to threatened, a step further away from extinction. The io was never downlisted to threatened, as once proposed, but will be removed from the list.
Efforts to delist the Hawaiian hawk stretch as far back as the 1990s and were met with some controversy from Native Hawaiians and scientists, who felt the population was too small, prompting more detailed studies and islandwide surveys.
When the io was first listed, officials thought only several hundred existed due to loss and degradation of habitat.
Wildlife officials said the hawk’s population — estimated at about 3,000 — is now stable. Studies show they have also been able to adapt, and dwell in native and non-native habitats from mountain to sea.
The proposal to delist the io was submitted in 2008, and public comments were submitted that year, as well as in 2009 and 2014, and when the rule was again proposed in 2018.
Besides a stable population, the USFWS said studies have shown the hawks are not threatened by widespread bird diseases such as avian malaria.
Nor does climate change pose a substantial threat to the species at this time or within the foreseeable future.
USFWS will continue monitoring the io after the delisting. The hawk still will be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
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