The Boar Wars Who you gonna call when feral pigs trample paradise?
by Daniel Duane
(page 2 of 3)
THE PROPERTY SPREAD OUT ALONG MAUI'S glorious shore, where the slopes of Haleakala sweep 10,000 feet from the sea up to the summit, through the spectacular and remote Kaupo Gap. It's a breathtaking environment, with its one road so curvy you rarely go more than 15 miles an hour. Almost nobody lives out there, and the house where we were staying is off the grid, with electricity from solar panels and water from a nearby well. Warm sea breezes carry the forest fragrance through a gracious great room. Fruit trees dot the grassy yard, and a step to the veranda lets you look out over the windswept waves and the looming colossus of the Big Island.
At an outdoor table, over some lemonade, Holter talked about how hunting and conservation have intersected in his life. He grew up in Big Bear Lake, he said, a Southern California resort community, and his older brother was so sickly that, as Holter put it, "he required 100 percent attention, so I grew up not getting any and not needing any." Wandering the desert and hunting jackrabbits, Holter found a place for himself in the natural world, and he spent summers with his father in the western oil fields. "I'd follow him around from Utah to Wyoming to Montana," Holter said, "and he'd tabulate the drilling equipment, and I'd go off with my .22. Ten years old, and I'd just disappear and shoot rocks and look for arrowheads and watch antelope."
Link that to Holter's first deer, at age 12, when he joined a reduction hunt to keep deer from overgrazing their winter range, and it's easy to see how he developed a personal connection to his sport's ecological upside. Enrolling in a forestry program at California's Lassen Community College after high school, Holter hoped to become a wildlife biologist.
He dropped out for a stint in the Peace Corps in Tunisia but never lost his love of the outdoors. Even while living on a New Zealand commune in the mid-1970s, Holter hunted non-native possums that killed endemic bird species, and after settling on Maui, he joined the Sierra Club and became a committed activist. Over the past few years, Holter has worked on Hawaii's Legacy Lands Act, which helps build low-income housing and purchase open space, and has flown repeatedly to the Arctic, fighting a mine project and advocating for preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Hey wait," Holter said suddenly. "I just heard a goat." Standing up from his plastic chaise longue, Holter carried his binoculars to the far corner of the veranda.
I'd heard the goat too--a baying sound, like a sheep without the tremolo. So I followed Holter. When I was standing next to him, he told me in a don't-spook-the-prey stage whisper that he'd just seen the goat--a huge one--among some pine trees visible a few hundred yards downhill, at the edge of a ravine.
"Why don't you go get that rifle," Holter said, "and a box of shells."
So I did, shuffling off in my tube socks down the deck stairs. On the way back, I realized I didn't really know how to hold a gun. I knew how to carry one safely, because I'd just passed my hunter-education class, but I had no clue how to hold one so that I'd look like a hunter instead of an urban dork. So after I carried the rifle back to Holter, I decided to restore my self-esteem by loading it. I pulled the rifle's bolt back and put four shells into the magazine and then closed the action without chambering a shell. You have to know what you're doing to close the action without chambering a shell--it takes a little trick with your finger.
By then, Holter's goat had disappeared.
"There's one over there too," Holter said, pointing across the ravine to the steep slope on its far side. Holding his binoculars, I could actually see the thing: rusty brown, standing on a patch of denuded soil. The problem was, it must've been a thousand yards away, a shot for a Delta Force sniper.
"Looks like all the goats went down to the stream this morning to drink," Holter said, thinking aloud. "And now they're coming back up. They'll probably work their way toward us."
"What do you want to do?" I asked.
"Just wait, let them come to us."
Ten minutes later, when no goat had wandered into the clearing, I figured we'd put on our shoes, slip into the forest, and try to meet our goat halfway.
"You know what we should do?" Holter asked. "Here's what we should do. I'm going to lie down and take a nap, and when I wake up, we'll go look for that goat." With that, he stretched out again on the chaise, folded his long hands on his stomach, and closed his eyes.
OUR HOST HAD WIRELESS SATELLITE INTERNET, so while Holter napped, I looked around on the Web and learned that Hawaiian environmentalists were worried about non-native ungulates in the late 1950s, when the state started regulating introduced mammals as game rather than controlling them as pests. The controversy pit hunters and environmentalists against each other: Hunters have an understandable interest in maintaining game species in the Hawaiian Islands, and in many parts of the world that interest jibes with the environmentalist impulse to preserve habitat.
But voracious feral ungulates on biologically isolated islands are a different story. So with the state of Hawaii committed to managing such animals as a recreational resource rather than protecting habitat, in 1978 the Sierra Club joined the Audubon Society in a lawsuit arguing that the state had violated the Endangered Species Act by maintaining feral goats and sheep on the habitat of the endangered native palila bird. And they won.
This was the first time an animal was successfully named as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit--the case is known as Palila v. Hawaii--and it was also the first time that environmental "takings" were expanded to include indirect impacts. To wit, Jeff Mikulina, president of the Hawaii Chapter, explains, "The introduced sheep and goats were not eating the palila. They were eating the sweet mamane leaves and shoots, the palila's main food source." An additional 1985 lawsuit over mouflon sheep had a similar outcome: A federal judge ruled that the state had to begin eradicating the herd.
The only problem is that the non-natives aren't being removed--partly because of a lack of political will, and partly because of the sheer difficulty of eradication. Sport hunters can certainly be helpful, and many would doubtless volunteer their time, but the undirected thinning of herds doesn't solve much in an island setting. In Hawaii, the carrying capacity for deer, pigs, and goats is zero--at least if you care about preserving native biodiversity. The islands' 6,400 square miles in the middle of the Pacific are home to more than 300 endangered species. Rare plant and animal species have evolved here by wind, wing, and wave, only to be trampled and grazed and pushed from their natural habitats. So the non-native animals have to be 100 percent eliminated in a focused and sustained effort, at least from areas not designated as hunting preserves.
Not only is this expensive, offensive to portions of the public, and alienating to sport hunters--who might understandably see it as reducing their future hunting opportunities--but many of the common techniques are out of the question. Poison bait is illegal; neck snares are inhumane; birth-control darts are ineffective; and others, like helicopter hunting, are too dangerous and probably wouldn't work because of the dense brush. That leaves dog teams on the ground, which also pose problems.
Experienced dog handlers can be hard to find, for starters. And nobody entirely agrees on what makes a good hog dog, but everyone does agree that you can't just round up a crew from the SPCA. A standard team might include one bluetick or walker hound that can catch a day-old scent, a couple of cattle dogs smart enough to flush a pig from the brush without getting killed, and a terrier for holding on until the hunter catches up.
These dogs can cost $500 each, and handlers must break them of the itch to chase nontarget animals like cattle and cats, and hunt them on pigs all the time just to keep them fit and focused. Handlers must also be willing to do the final job with a knife; in dense brush with a pack of dogs, that's often the only safe way. Worse still, male hogs have razor-sharp tusks and a gift for using them, so the veterinary and hospital bills can get prohibitive. (Kevlar dog vests are popular accessories.)