The Safeguarding of Hawai’i’s Ecosystem and Agriculture against Invasive Species

George Phocas







OCTOBER 27, 2011


Chairman Akaka, Ranking Member Johnson, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to testify on the Service’s efforts to protect the ecological and agricultural interests of Hawai’i from the threat of non-native species. I am George Phocas, Resident Agent-in-Charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in the Pacific Region.

There is no question that harmful impacts of invasive species invasive species
An invasive species is any plant or animal that has spread or been introduced into a new area where they are, or could, cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health. Their unwelcome presence can destroy ecosystems and cost millions of dollars.

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have been significant in Hawai’i. This testimony will focus on the threats posed by non-native, invasive species on native species and ecosystems in Hawai’i and how the Service is working both to prevent new invasions and to address established populations and the impacts of such species.

Risks and Threats of Invasive Species

Non-native, invasive wildlife species are a significant threat to native species and ecosystems throughout the United States. Nearly half of imperiled species are threatened by invasive species impacts. With just a simple review of the history of species introductions in our country -- from the zebra mussel on the mainland to the brown tree snake here in the Pacific Islands -- one can appreciate the scope and gravity of the problem.

The United States continues to receive importation of non-native species, and some of these have entered our lands and waters through various pathways and become established there. With an increasingly global economy, this trend is expected to continue, making invasive species among the most significant natural resource management challenges we face throughout the nation.

Native species in Hawai’i are particularly vulnerable. There are more than 400 species that are federally listed as threatened or endangered due in part from competition with or predation by invasive wildlife species. At least 374 of those are found in Hawai’i’s unique ecosystems. These imperiled native species in Hawai‘i include plants such as the Hawaiian gardenia (Gardenia

brighamii), Hawaiian red-flowered geranium (Geranium arboretum), and Mann’s bluegrass (Poa mannii), and animals such as Newcomb’s snail (Erinna newcombi), Blackburn’s sphinx moth (Manduca blackburni), and bird species, O‘ahu Elepaio (Chasiempis sandwichensis ibidis).

Invasive species are also known to have changed ecosystem functions in the State of Hawai‘i. For example, the strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) was first brought to Hawai‘i in 1825 for its fruit and ornamental attributes. This highly invasive plant is now established on all major Hawaiian Islands from sea level to 4,000-foot elevation. It has become widespread in native forests, forming impenetrable thickets that crowd out native plant species, fragment native habitats, and disrupt native ecosystem processes, such as the supply of fresh water. The two invasive wildlife species described below, the axis deer (Axis axis) and the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) provide illustrations of further impacts to species and ecosystems native to Hawai’i.

Axis Deer

Non-native ungulates (animals in the deer family) have degraded ecosystems in Hawai’i, particularly in native forests. This is the primary threat that led to the listing of the majority of threatened and endangered species in Hawai’i. For example, the axis deer, native to India, was first introduced in 1868 as a gift to King Kamehameha V from the government of Hong Kong. Populations of this species became established on the islands of Maui, Moloka‘I, and Lana‘i. The Maui invasion reportedly started sometime in the late 1950’s with a small population introduced for subsistence hunting. It currently numbers in the thousands and is distributed across the entire the island. This deer species is a voracious grazer of forest understory plants, including seedlings of native trees that are critical to the survival of native Hawaiian forest birds.

Axis deer are now confirmed in the Ka’u area of Hawai‘i Island, and they have been reported in other places on the island, as well. The confirmed presence of axis deer on the Island of Hawai’i indicates a possible lack of clear and appropriate state laws or regulations to prohibit or restrict their transport. The Service has loaned equipment and provided technical assistance to the Big Island Invasive Species Committee (a volunteer committee of stakeholders on the Island of Hawai’i) as it develops a plan to address the presence of deer on the island.

Brown Tree Snake

The brown tree snake has had a significant impact on the biodiversity of the Pacific region. A native of Indonesia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Australia, the brown tree snake arrived in Guam sometime during the 1940’s and 1950’s, likely as a stowaway. These snakes have since spread across the entire island and have caused or contributed to the extirpation of most of Guam’s native terrestrial vertebrates, including fruit bats, lizards, and nine of 13 native forest bird species. These now extirpated species consumed insects that damage fruit and vegetables. To control these insects, residents must now rely more on pesticides. In addition to ecological impacts, brown tree snakes also cause millions of dollars in damage to Guam’s infrastructure and economy by entering and moving through electrical distribution equipment and causing frequent power outages.

Since 1981, eight brown tree snakes have been reported to have reached Hawai‘i through the movement of civilian and military equipment and cargo from Guam. Since the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services’ brown tree snake program on Guam in 1994, the rate of snake captures associated with cargo shipped to Hawai‘i has declined dramatically. This program uses canine detection teams to screen cargo and equipment leaving Guam, trapping snakes around air and sea ports, fence-line spotlighting and capture of snakes, and deploying toxic baits to reduce free-roaming snakes in sensitive areas on Guam. The growth in United States military presence on Guam is causing increased air and sea traffic between Guam and other regions in the Pacific, including the continental United States. As a result, the Department of Defense’s responsibility for brown tree snake control and interdiction at military and commercial facilities related to the military build-up on Guam was a component of a recently completed ESA Section 7 Section 7
Section 7 Consultation The Endangered Species Act (ESA) directs all Federal agencies to work to conserve endangered and threatened species and to use their authorities to further the purposes of the Act. Section 7 of the Act, called "Interagency Cooperation," is the mechanism by which Federal agencies ensure the actions they take, including those they fund or authorize, do not jeopardize the existence of any listed species.

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consultation with the Service.

Meeting the Challenge of Invasive Species

Preventing new introductions of invasive species is the most effective approach to protecting native wildlife and their habitats from the impact of these damaging species. Prevention is a primary focus of the Service, which also works to manage, control, and limit the impact of invasive species already established, particularly on National Wildlife Refuges. The Service works with partners to control invasive species and minimize their impacts on lands adjacent to Refuges and on other government and private lands that support important habitats for native fish and wildlife.

The Service’s partners in these efforts in Hawai’i include other federal agencies such as the USDA - Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and state agencies, such as the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture and the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The Service’s Pacific Island Office has developed and implemented a strategic plan that addresses invasive species in Hawai‘i and the Pacific region for the next five years.


Non-native species, once introduced and established in the United States, can harm economic, ecological, and human health interests, and Congress has worked with federal agencies and partners over the past century to identify and prohibit the importation of species known to likely cause such harm. The Lacey Act of 1900 – the country’s first federal wildlife protection law – was enacted in part to address this concern. In fact, the first federal wildlife law enforcement officers were six men hired as “Lacey Act inspectors” and stationed at the ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Francisco to intercept injurious wildlife identified through the Lacey Act—specifically, mongoose, fruit bats, starlings and English sparrows.

Today, the injurious wildlife provisions of the Lacey Act (18 U.S.C. § 42(a)) provide the Service’s only regulatory tool to address invasive species. Under Title 18 of the Lacey Act, the Secretary of the Interior is authorized to prohibit the importation and interstate transportation of species “designated as injurious to human beings, to the interests of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, or to wildlife or the wildlife resources of the United States.”

The Service is responsible for identifying and listing such species through the rulemaking process. The Service’s Office of Law Enforcement is responsible for enforcing the prohibitions on the importation and interstate transport of species that have been federally listed as injurious. The Service is also responsible for issuing permits through the Lacey Act, which would allow importation of injurious species for zoological, educational, medical, or scientific purposes.

Service enforcement efforts include: 1) interdiction of species listed as injurious under the Lacey Act (18 U.S.C. 42) at the time of import; 2) investigations of illegal importation and interstate transport of federally listed injurious wildlife (18 U.S.C. 42); and 3) assistance to states with intercepting illegal importation and/or interstate transport of invasive species banned under state law (16 U.S.C. 3372).

The Office of Law Enforcement’s Wildlife inspection program is an important part of the nation’s frontline defense against injurious wildlife species. Wildlife inspectors are stationed in Honolulu and at 37 other major U.S. airports, ocean ports, and border crossings, where they monitor imports and exports to ensure compliance with U.S. laws and regulations. Responsibilities of the Service’s wildlife inspectors also include detecting and deterring illegal trade in species protected by several federal statutes and treaty obligations, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

The Service wildlife inspection program is funded primarily by user fees paid by commercial importers and exporters of wildlife and wildlife products, and it currently includes 142 inspectors. In FY 2011, these officers processed more than 170,000 declared shipments worth more than $2.7 million, including species federally listed as injurious. They also proactively inspected numerous other imports in search of undeclared and smuggled wildlife.

In addition to the work of the Service’s wildlife inspectors, the Service relies upon, and works to maintain, strong partnerships with other federal agencies involved in the processing and inspection of shipments into the United States, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and USDA. Cooperative efforts include port-by-port collaboration among staffs to provide wildlife import/export training to all new CBP and USDA inspectors during their basic training programs.

In Hawai’i, violators of the Lacey Act and other conservation statutes acquire, possess, propagate and distribute federal and state prohibited species, including snakes, turtles, tortoises, lizards, chameleons, and various species of fish. In fact, Hawai’i has been used as a clearing house, both as a source and stopover for distribution of illegal or injurious species of fish and reptiles to and from the mainland United States and foreign countries.

The Service’s enforcement staffing in Hawai’i consists of three special agents and four wildlife inspectors, who work closely with their federal and state counterparts to identify and stop these shipments.


While preventing new introductions is a primary focus for the Service, the agency also works to manage and control non-native species that have already become established in our ecosystems and are damaging or threatening native species populations. The Service’s Ecological Services program in Hawai‘i works through its partnerships and through consultation under the Endangered Species Act to address the threat of established populations of invasive species to native wildlife – particularly to federally listed and Endangered Species Act candidate species.

Working together, these partnerships between state, county and federal agencies and private groups have achieved invasive species control and management successes in Hawai‘i. These partnerships bring together not only the many agencies are responsible for the pathways that bring potentially invasive species into Hawai‘i, regulate their movement, and control their spread, but also the landowners and businesses that are negatively affected by invasive species.

Partnerships in Hawai’i include: 1) the Hawai‘i Invasive Species Council, composed of state agency heads provide policy level direction, coordination, and planning among state departments, federal agencies, and international and local initiatives for the control and eradication of harmful invasive species; 2) the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, which has facilitated the development of integrated policies within state and federal agencies in the State of Hawai‘i; and 3) Invasive Species Committees that carry out on-the-ground invasive species abatement actions.

Specifically to address aquatic invasive species, Hawai’i has developed a Hawaii Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan under the auspices of the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force (ANSTF). The ANSTF was created and authorized by the Nonindigenous Nuisance Aquatic Prevention and Control Act of 1990, amended by the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 (NISA). It is the primary entity coordinating federal aquatic invasive species management activities, and it consists of ten federal agency representatives and 12 ex-officio members and is co-chaired by the Service and NOAA. Through this authority, states are provided guidance for developing state aquatic invasive species management plans, and may be provided with limited federal funding that is appropriated to assist states in implementing their plan, subject to ANSTF approval.

The Service, through the Fisheries Program’s Branch of Aquatic Invasive Species is authorized by NISA and responsible for the prevention of the introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species. In Hawai’i, this Branch of the Service works with states and other partners to monitor aquatic invasive species distribution, respond to new invasions, and control established invaders. The Service provides technical assistance to partners to assist in reaching the goals set forth in the plan, funding for specific projects aimed at controlling priority aquatic invasive species, partial salary funding to support a State of Hawaii Aquatic Invasive Species Project Coordinator. This Branch also administers funding for and coordinates the Service’s role in the brown tree snake control program, authorized by the Brown Tree Snake Control and Eradication Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-384).

Lacey Act Challenges

Although prevention of new introductions of invasive species to ecosystems in the United States is the most effective and efficient approach to protecting native species, ecosystems, agricultural, or human health interests, the Service has identified a number of challenges inherent in the process of listing species as “injurious”.

For example, the listing evaluations we currently make under the injurious wildlife provisions of the Lacey Act require a significant amount of time and resources to process. The time period to complete an evaluation depends upon the availability of biological and economic data and the complexity of the analyses required under the Lacey Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, and other applicable requirements in the regulatory process. For many species evaluations, biological information must be gathered from overseas, and it is often necessary to translate it into English before an evaluation can be initiated.

The Service has not been able to make injurious wildlife listings under the Lacey Act into the nimble, timely, and proactive tool needed to address the current rate of importation and transport of potentially invasive, non-native species. The Service recognizes the potential value of a new approach for managing the risk of importing potentially invasive nonnative wildlife before they arrive in this country. Having the opportunity to evaluate nonnative species that are proposed for importation could be an invaluable tool to ensure that we are more proactive in preventing the introduction of harmful invasive species.


In conclusion, the Service appreciates the Subcommittee’s interest in invasive species in Hawai’i, the threats they pose to native species and ecosystems, and the efforts of the Service to address those threats. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify before the subcommittee. The Service remains committed to addressing this significant threat to the natural resources of these islands.