Planet Earth News: Sierra Club Lawsuit Against N.R.A.

The Sierra Club's lawsuit against N.R.A. involves the endangered Hawaiian bird the palila and the sport hunter introduced wild European sheep known as mouflon that eats the plants the palila needs to survive.

| November/December 1988

  • Lawsuit against mouflon sheep in Hawaii
    On this particular issue of the Hawaiian palila vs mouflon sheep, the rifle association is shooting its own foot.

  • Lawsuit against mouflon sheep in Hawaii

Environmental planet earth news brief about the Sierra Club's lawsuit against N.R.A. involving the Hawaiian bird the palila and the hunter introduced sheep the mouflon. 

Environmental Planet Earth News

THE JUNE 1988 ISSUE OF THE MAGAZINE American Hunter, a publication of the National Rifle Association, carried a provocative article concerning a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on behalf of an endangered Hawaiian bird, the palila, and its human defenders. The article was based on a press release from a hunters' group called the Hawaii Wildlife Conservancy and its spokesman, John Carroll, a Honolulu lawyer who represented a number of Hawaiian sport hunters in the lawsuit. Having lost in court, Mr. Carroll evidently decided to take his arguments to the press. Given the accuracy of his press release, it's no wonder he did not prevail in a court of law. Here's a synopsis of the story behind the story.

The palila is a small honeycreeper, about the size of a sparrow. It, along with most other native Hawaiian birds and a horrifying number of endemic plants (an estimated 800 species), is endangered. Most of the plants have yet to be placed on the federal government's endangered-species list; the palila, however, was "listed" in 1967. The forces that have brought so much of Hawaii's wildlife to the brink of extinction—and pushed some species over—are many and varied. Over half of Hawaii's original native forests have been cleared by native Hawaiians for taro growing and by later residents for pineapple, sugar cane and other agricultural endeavors.

Spraying of pesticides and herbicides is a potent modern threat. But competition from exotic (Hawaiian conservationists prefer to call them "alien") species is also an important cause of extinction and near extinction. Plants and animals introduced to the islands from other lands have competed all too successfully with native species. The palila very nearly fell victim to this last threat.

Three decades ago, at the instigation of sport hunters, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources released on the Big Island a strain of wild European sheep known as mouflon, hoping that they would prosper, multiply and become a reliable game population. The mouflon gained a quick foothold, joining feral sheep and goats first brought to the islands by missionaries in the late 1700s. The introduced animals found the forage on the mid and upper slopes of Mauna Kea volcano quite satisfactory. Unfortunately for all concerned, the food preferred by the interlopers—tender leaves and shoots from the native mamane-naio forest—is precisely what the palila requires to survive. As the population of sheep and goats grew larger, their browsing began to tell on the forest, suppressing new growth to the point where the palila population began a precipitous plunge. The Endangered Species Act, which became law in 1973, forbids the "taking" of endangered species—taking being a catchall expression that includes outright killing as well as harming, harassing, trapping or wounding.

But what about willful destruction of the habitat that a species requires for its survival? Couldn't that also be considered a "taking"? That was the legal theory that Michael Sherwood and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund used to bring the palila into a federal court to fight for its survival. In 1978, Sherwood sued the state of Hawaii for failing to protect the palila. The lead plaintif in the case was the palila itself (a legal first), with the National Audubon Society, the Hawaii Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and a Hawaiian ornithologist named Alan C. Ziegler as coplaintiffs. The theory (advanced for the first time by Sherwood) was that by allowing damage to the palila's habitat, the state of Hawaii was "taking" the species.

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