A Cooperative Stewardship in Natural Resources and Environmental Management

U.S. Army Garrison Hawai‘i’s Schofield Barracks is home to an elite unit whose mission is to protect the island of O‘ahu from invasion.

They use helicopters and four-wheel drive vehicles; often rappel down steep mountainsides; and use their highly trained special skills to carry out their assigned objectives.

While the description certainly brings to one’s mind the famed U.S. Army Rangers, this group utilizes their specialized acumen and knowledge in conservation biology to protect endangered species and habitats on more than 50,000 acres of U.S. Army training ground on the island. They are members of the Army Natural Resource Program on O‘ahu (ANRPO), an approximately $21 million project funded through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Army.

 As a federal agency, the U.S. Army is required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to protect any federally listed endangered or threatened animals and plants in their training areas and to ensure they are not negatively impacted. Additionally, they are bound by the Sikes Act that covers wildlife, fish and game conservation and rehabilitation on military reservations.

“In Hawai‘i, the U.S. Army is responsible for over 120 endangered plants and animals, the highest number of endangered species for any Army garrison in the United States,” said U.S. Army Garrison Hawai‘i Natural Resource Manager Kapua Kawelo. “Through ANRPO, the U.S. Army is able to maintain compliance in their five O‘ahu training areas, enabling service members from the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, National Guard and Reserve, as well as local law enforcement agencies, to successfully maintain their operational readiness.”

Rare Snail Conservation Biologist Deena Gary shows the multi-barrier predator-proof fence built by ANRPO; the fence site was chosen based on research conducted by UH

The ANRPO team consists of two U.S. Army Garrison Hawai‘i civilian employees and over 50 contract biologists and technicians who protect the native habitats via removal of pigs and goats from fenced units, invasive plant control and eradication, vegetation restoration, and rodent and slug control. In addition, ANRPO maintains and increases populations of endangered plants and animals through monitoring, cultivation and reintroduction. The program collaborates and consults extensively with conservation entities across the state of Hawai‘i including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawai‘i State Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Hawai‘i State Department of Land and Natural Resources, the O‘ahu Invasive Species Committee, the Hawaiian Seed Bank Partnership, the Hawai‘i Rare Plant Restoration Group, and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, as well as many other municipal and private entities.

As new challenges and obstacles arise that often require innovative solutions, ANRPO regularly partners with researchers from various institutions and agencies from around the world. While the University of Hawai‘i has always been the defacto institution due to its location and expertise, a much stronger research relationship has developed when the University of Hawai‘i Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI) entered into a cooperative agreement to administratively oversee ANRPO in 2018.

“The outstanding conservation work done by ANRPO is not only vital to the operational readiness of military forces in Hawai‘i, but also to preserving and maintaining the state’s finite natural resources and habitats,” said UH Vice President for Research and Innovation Vassilis L. Syrmos. “The partnership allows us to seamlessly integrate our excellent cadre of researchers to work collaboratively with ANRPO staff to find innovative solutions to constantly evolving issues in environmental stewardship.”

While ANRPO works with researchers from a variety of departments at UH, a strong partnership has developed with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management (NREM) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. At all levels, from professors to graduate and undergraduate students, NREM provides ongoing support to ANRPO.

Protecting the Endangered Kāhuli Snails

An endangered kāhuli tree snail (Achatinella mustelina)

Decades ago, the large numbers of Hawaiian tree snails (kāhuli, genus Achatinella) made them look like ornaments on trees, causing shell collectors to come out in droves to snatch them up. Since then, the kāhuli have suffered dramatic declines and losses due to various introduced predators and the range of sites where kāhuli can be found has contracted to higher elevations.

“Unlike other snails, the kāhuli do not lay eggs,” said Melissa Price, a biologist and assistant professor at NREM, who studied under noted UH kāhuli specialist Dr. Michael Hadfield. “The snails give live birth to only one offspring at a time, which is another factor to their extinction level numbers.”

Price, who studied the effect of climate change on kāhuli (Price et al. 2021), has advised ANRPO on how to incorporate climate change considerations in kāhuli management, including selection of management sites. Translocating tree snails into predator fences at sites which are higher and cooler, is putting assisted migration into practice.

Other UH researchers worked with ANRPO on development of effective barriers to affix on predator-proof fences built to protect kāhuli in their native habitat. Electrical, cut copper-mesh, rolled metal hoods and angle barriers are the current combination employed to keep out the tree snail’s three major predators: rats, cannibal snails and Jackson’s chameleons. During the predator fence site selection process, many factors are weighed including terrain, accessibility, predator abundance, and habitat quality.

Controlling the Spread of Invasive Species

NREM guides and mentors numerous students pursuing higher-level degrees with a conservation focus. NREM graduate students have collaborated with ANRPO in the past on studies relating to vegetation mapping and classification, biology and distribution of the Hawaiian owl, and restoration of Hawaiian dry forests. Samantha Shizuru, a graduate assistant funded by ANRPO, is currently working with NREM Professor Creighton Litton to study the noxious plant, Chromolaena odorata (devil weed). Devil weed was first discovered at the Kahuku Training Area where National Guard troops from Guam were training. Devil weed is abundant in Guam and likely hitched a ride on some field equipment transported to Hawai‘i by the soldiers. Devil weed has since been moved around the Kahuku region of O‘ahu due to unauthorized recreational vehicle use. Devil weed produces abundant, small, wind-dispersed seeds that have complicated ANRPO’s eradication efforts. Thus, ANRPO is utilizing an integrated control approach which combines surveys, herbicide treatment, and biological control.

“Samantha is filling in gaps in ANRPO’s knowledge about devil weed’s life cycle, reproductive periods, and fecundity,” said Kawelo. “She collects data in partnership with ANRPO staff and her research and analysis will feed directly into deploying the biological control most effectively.”

Mutual Support Between ANRPO and NREM

Every year, ANRPO hosts a cadre of six to eight summer interns. NREM students are well represented in these coveted internships; in 2020, four of six interns were affiliated with NREM. In addition, ANRPO provides guest lectures to NREM conservation classes on topics ranging from the Endangered Species Act to rare and invasive species management. Also, ANRPO supports students conducting independent research. Krista Lizardi, an undergraduate in NREM and ANRPO summer intern alumna, selected one of ANRPOs rare plant taxa, Dubautia herbstobatae, as the subject of her structured decision making final project.

Krista Lizardi pots up rare plant cuttings collected from the field; some of these plants will be planted back into the wild, while others will be maintained in the ANRPO greenhouse as a living collection to preserve genetic diversity

“Krista guided ANRPO botanical experts through a series of questions to assess staff comfort levels for outplanting this taxon outside of its current range in response to climate change,” noted Kawelo. “The application of this decision-making approach was eye opening for natural resource managers at ANRPO because it provided a method for transforming qualitative expert opinion into quantitative actionable data.”

Looking to the Future NREM Associate Specialist Clay Trauernicht was recently hired as an extension professor to serve as liaison between NREM, ANRPO and other U.S. Department of Defense installations. Trauernicht has a strong background in botany, conservation and wildfire science. He has worked to feed wildfire data and lessons learned to natural resource managers so that they can adapt their native habitat management approaches. Trauernicht will track priority research areas/topics, facilitate communications between ANRPO managers, NREM faculty and students, and guide and review proposals and projects. His involvement will allow this budding partnership between UH and ANRPO to bloom into a productive and high-quality research-management collaboration.