Sunday, October 19, 2014

Endemic Mauna Kea insect has 'stable population'

BY PETER SUR | STEPHENS MEDIA

HILO -- The wekiu bug, a species native to the cinder cones of Mauna Kea, is no longer a candidate for endangered or threatened status.

The federal government announced its finding Wednesday.

"The wekiu bug was believed to be limited in range to six puus (cinder cones) in the summit area and was threatened by loss of habitat on Mauna Kea due to development of observatory facilities, which was believed to be causing a severe decline in its numbers," the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife said in its findings, published in the Federal Register. "Surveys now indicate that the wekiu bug is currently found on 16 puus. The previous trend toward loss of habitat due to observatory construction has been curtailed, and no new construction, including the currently planned Thirty Meter Telescope project, will occur on any puu occupied by the species."

Since its discovery in 1979, little is known about the bug, which lives only on cinder cones about 11,700 feet in elevation on Mauna Kea. Descended from seed-eating insects found on lower elevations across Hawaii, the flightless wekiu bug has adapted to an exclusive diet of insects that have been blown up the mountain and immobilized by the cold and high elevation.

The bug has also been caught in the tug-of-war over astronomy development of Mauna Kea since a petition to list it as threatened or endangered was filed in 2003.

The University of Hawaii at Hilo says that the TMT, a world-class telescope that is proposed for the northern slope of Mauna Kea, is not being built on a cinder cone and therefore is not wekiu bug habitat, but Sierra Club member Deborah Ward says it is.

Ward, a petitioner in the recent TMT contested case hearing, called the decision "premature."

"As the world warms, the habitat shrinks, and additionally, as the habitat is impacted by development, the risk to the species increases," she said.

She also released a statement from the Sierra Club, which said it is "disappointed in the short-sighted decision."

"The wekiu bug lives in one place in the world: Mauna Kea," the club said. "And the home of the wekiu bug is under attack by a host of different threats, including alien invasive species and rampant development. Endangered species designation would have brought additional funding and oversight for this rare and unique species and helped ensure its protection."

The federal government named the bug as a candidate in 2004 and said that "threats to this species include past and potential habitat destruction from building and updating of facilities for astronomical study."

But the creation of a new management framework since then, including a "procedure for formal review of new projects on Mauna Kea contributes to the protection and conservation of the wekiu bug," the government now says. "Studies over the last 11 years also indicate the wekiu bug has a stable population ... We no longer conclude that the threats across the wekiu bug's expanded range put the species in danger of extinction.

"In summary, because the wekiu bug is likely stable in numbers, the wekiu bug is more widespread than previously believed, current threats are minimized and restricted and within the larger range of the species, and future potential threats are minimized, we find the wekiu bug does not meet the definition of a threatened or endangered species and no longer warrants listing throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Thus, we have removed it from candidate status."

The bugs retain some protections for those existing in the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve, which includes a pie-shaped slice of part of the summit region. Existing administrative rules prohibit the removal, injury or killing of any form of plant or animal life within these reserve areas. The disturbance of geological features in these reserves, which could include wekiu bug habitat, is also prohibited.

psur@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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