What do you do when your food has become feral and threatens sensitive environmental areas? At what point does a food species become an invasive species?
I recently received a video of three hungry and thirsty lambs on the barren lava fields of Mauna Kea, kept from food and water by newly erected fencing. The video came from a man named Tony Sylvester, an electronics technician who works at one of the observatories on Mauna Kea. He is also an avid hunter who wants to save the sheep targeted for eradication.
Tony is part of the “local” culture, born and raised on the Big Island, a well seasoned hunter who hunts with his adult sons. For Tony and many others like him, supporting one’s family with food from the wild is an important cultural practice. It is not only about food, which is important enough. It is also about traditions, father-son outings, connecting with nature, eating from the bounty of the land.
When you hear Tony speak about the starving sheep on Mauna Kea, his compassion and concern make him sound more like a humane officer than a hunter. Good gardeners tend and protect the trees and vegetables that feed them. Good hunters do the same with the wild game that have fed their families for generations.
Local hunters are in conflict with environmental managers who are cutting up Big Island wilderness with fences. Fences around critical habitat are meant to protect vegetation from sheep, goats, and other potentially destructive wildlife. Animals trapped inside the fences are shot and killed. Those trapped outside the fences are likely to starve. Recently, hundreds of sheep died of thirst because of a newly erected fence.
It is important for environmental managers to understand that people “connect” with their food. If you take away their food, you threatened the people. And these hunters feel angry and threatened.
The State Department of Land and Natural Resources has a mandate to stock the wild with game for food and to promote hunting. That mandate came at a time, decades ago, when legislators realized that we are an island state and need to maintain our own natural food resources. Now, however, these game animals, and many of the fruit trees which they eat such as strawberry guava, are considered “invasive”, and legislators are seeming more concerned with killing introduced species than in protecting our food resources and the local way of life that uses those resources.
I asked Tony to explain the problem with the sheep, since he has studied the situation. Here is what he said. His video of the lambs and the harsh terrain on which they are trapped is below.
Tony: “The problem is that they (environmental managers) have taken control of all our upland game areas. With the closing of PTA (Puhakaloa Training Area) there are just two places left to hunt for sheep. One is Kipuka Ainahou, which is on the Mauna Loa side of the saddle road between the 22 and 27 mile marker and that is archery only. The other is Kaohe Game Management Area and both rifle and archery are used there.
“They have eradicated all other places to the point that only a few sheep are present if any. Kipuka Ainahou is open from April to October only and Kaohe GMA is very thick with Mamane and is closed during drought and bird hunting season which is from November to January.
“Currently Kipuka Ainahou is very depleted of good game from all the hunting pressure. Fewer places to hunt so everyone is pounding Kipuka. The area holds a good amount of sheep but its not a very large land area. Ram numbers are way down. Ewes are holding but more hunters are starting to take them, too. Kaohe GMA has sheep but they are mostly present because helicopters can’t shoot them due to the thick mamane forest. The sheep numbers run about 100 in Kaohe GMA. Eradications were carried out four times last year.
“All this eradication and fencing is to obtain total control of the wild sheep and eventually they will all be removed. The sheep have adapted well and have been a nemesis to the invasive species clan for years. They know that cutting off the migratory routes of the sheep will stop them. They have no sanctuary to hide.
“In the past the wild sheep could cross into DLNR land, PTA Federal land and DHHL Hawaiian lands, all having their own jurisdiction so no one control. The sheep could simply run and hide across boundaries. Not anymore.
“Most of the mountain is conservation and critical habitat for Palila so they have removed all but a few die hard mammals in those areas.
“There is just not enough land set aside for the sheep. They are relentlessly pressured and now they have nowhere to go.
“If some of the former or unsuitable ranch lands were fenced properly then the wild sheep could be relocated there. These lands have mostly grass as cattle ranching activities removed the trees. The sheep would do well and they could open seasonal to allow hunting and closed seasons for hiking and other activities. This would benefit the critical habitats, hunters and the sheep.
“They could also relocate some to Kipuka Ainahou prior to hunting season to allow them to be taken for food.
“The bottom line is that we as hunters and locals want to see some sheep left in the wild as they are a part of our history and culture. Nowhere else in the world do we see such diversity and we the Hawaiians, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Puerto Ricans, Caucasians all share this in common. To be local is not a single race but its the combining of all these races and our history and culture is interwoven. We are a race of people and we have formed our own culture.”
As you can see from Tony’s comments, eradicating sheep is like eradicating the local culture. As wildlife managers drive Big Island sheep to extinction, they do the same to local culture.
Ironically, the hunters are the predators that are needed for sheep and other ungulate management in the wild. Eliminating the hunter and the hunted will leave our islands dependent on the Mainland for food. We may have forests with native plants and a few remaining native birds, but we will starve if our umbilicus to the mainland is cut and shipments of food are stopped. However, before we starve there will be social unrest as angry locals confront the government for destroying our precious natural food resources.
So saving the sheep may really mean saving ourselves.
To see the video of the lambs, go here: