Officials step up efforts to track pueo on Oahu

Honolulu Star Advertiser - August 22, 2016
Jayna Omaye

Federal and state officials say they are moving forward with plans to survey and study the pueo as residents raise concerns about impacts of development in West Oahu on the bird’s habitat.

The pueo is an endemic subspecies listed by the state as endangered on Oahu, likely due to loss and degradation of habitat and predation.

There are no population estimates or distribution data and little understanding of the owl’s ecology, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Pueo mainly eat small mammals such as rodents; live in wet and dry forests, grasslands and shrub lands; and nest on the ground.

Pueo protection and research were the subject of a meeting Thursday at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu, with residents, elected officials and representatives from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity. UH West Oahu’s mascot is the pueo.

DLNR plans to release a request for proposals by the end of this year soliciting bids for work that includes developing standardized survey and monitoring protocol for pueo. Afsheen Siddiqi, a DLNR wildlife biologist, said the department has funding for a one- to two-year study focusing on the owl’s population, distribution, nesting habitat and foraging habitats on Oahu. She said the Ewa plain will be included in the survey.

Siddiqi said she did not know why the pueo had not been surveyed more in the past. She noted that when she began working in her current post in February, the job had been vacant for a few years.

“With the limited resources DLNR has, we manage our land for habitat development,” Siddiqi said. “It’s (pueo survey) something we’ve been thinking about for a while.”

Jenny Hoskins, the Hawaii bird lead expert for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, said the pueo is difficult to track, and attempting to do so would take significant resources and time. The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to coordinate with DLNR on surveys on Oahu and the neighbor islands beginning this fall. Initial survey data would be used to design a comprehensive research effort focusing on pueo management.

“They’re so secretive. They’re not a really visible, flashy species,” Hoskins said. “It took longer for us than other species to realize how critical it was.”

Some area residents maintain that they have spotted the pueo on Ewa plain lands slated for development and have expressed frustration that until now the bird has received scant attention. Also, they emphasized the cultural significance of the pueo, considered sacred to many Hawaiians and known as an aumakua, or ancestral guardian believed to protect from harm and even death.

Michael Lee, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, suggested a conservation habitat plan that would protect the pueo’s habitat in certain areas on the Ewa plain.

“Pueo is very much important to us,” Lee said. “Still yet it’s very powerful in our family.”

Evelyn souza, chairwoman of the Makakilo/ Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board, agreed.

“It never occurred to me how important the pueo is … because it was never the focal point. And I’m kind of bewildered. If this is an … endangered, protected bird, why have we not in place already those mechanisms to preserve it, to protect it, protect its habitat? But better late than never.”

The pueo, believed to have colonized the Hawaiian Islands after the arrival of Polynesians, is protected under state and federal laws that prohibit anyone from hunting, shooting, wounding, capturing or trapping the owl.

There are two species of owl in Hawaii: the pueo, which is mainly active during the day, and the common barn owl, which is mostly seen at night. Barn owls, which nest in trees and were brought to Hawaii in the 1950s for rodent control, are sometimes mistaken for pueo. Pueo are smaller and have a round face whereas barn owls are lighter in coloring, with a heart-shaped face.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo) said last week’s meeting served as a starting point for more work and conversations about the pueo’s future in the area.

“People who live out here care about the issue,” said Gabbard, chairman of the Senate Water, Land and Agriculture Committee. “It’s key to get the results of these studies in order to make decisions, as policies are based on the science.”