Hunters teach TNC how natives can save rain forest

By Rocky Barker

Yama Kaholoaa is a carpenter on the island of Molokai in Hawaii.

Each summer he, his wife and their seven children moved into the lush rain-forested Pelekunu Valley and set up camp and a smokehouse. There they live off the land, hunt pigs, dive for fish, lobsters and prawns, and collecting edible plants.

"It's the lifestyle of Hawai`i," Kaholoaa says. "We live off the land part of the year. If we didn't, I couldn't feed my family."

Kaholoaa's lifestyle may be part of the past for most Hawaiians, but not for many of those who live on Molokai. The island holds a tight-knit community of 7,000 people, half who have Hawaiian blood.

Molokai natives like to say Molokai is what Hawaii was. Sound familar? One could argue that Molokai is to Hawaii what Idaho is to America.

I thought about Yama and Molokai when I was covering wise use rallys in Challis and Salmon. The similarities between Molokai and Central Idaho don't end with their unspoiled rural character.

Molokai has avoided the giant resort developments that now dominate the economy of the rest of the islands. Like the people of Challis and Salmon, Molokai residents want to keep it that way.

In the late 1980s, the Nature Conservancy secured protection rights to several thousand acres of the remaining rain forest on Molokai including the Pelekunu Valley. Hawaii's forest birds were going extinct at a frightful pace due to destruction of its rain forests primarily by wild pigs.

These pigs, which were not native to the islands, were like living rototillers, plowing through the forest destroying the native plants and turning the forest floor into a muddy mess. Scientists learned they could not simply set aside the rain forest to protect it, they had to control the pigs.

The Nature Conservancy began killing pigs to protect the forest. It's staff built fences to prevent other pigs from coming into the area. All of this was just fine to Kaholoaa and others on the island, as long as they too could continue to hunt and gather food from the forest.

In 1989, the Nature Conservancy started using snares to more efficiently kill the pigs in the preserves. The presence of snares --looped wires that strangle animals that walk into them -- made it too dangerous to hunt the area with dogs. Moreover, hundreds of pigs rotted trapped in the snares, when local residents could use the meat.

Molokai hunters asked the Nature Conservancy to get rid of the snares. They worried that the environmentalists wanted to eradicate pigs from the island.

The Nature Conservancy never had such intentions but they refused to give up the snares, which were keeping pig numbers to accepatable levels. The hunters became desperate and called in an unlikely ally - animal protection advocates.

Several members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals secretly entered the preserves, sabotaged snares and took pictures of dead pigs. They used the pictures to start a nationwide campaign against the Nature Conservancy, calling their pig snares cruel.

The campaign threated to hit the Nature Conservancy where it hurt, in its pocketbook. The conservancy relented and agreed to a test to see if the hunters could control the pigs enough to protect the forest.

The tests in 1993 were a success. Pig numbers were held to an acceptable level. The test demonstrated that both sides could achieve their goals by working together instead of fighting.

That brings me back to Salmon. Environmentalists and federal fish and wildlife agencies should now have learned the hard lesson that they cannot protect salmon, wolves or central Idaho's wilderness without the help of the people who live there.

That doesn't mean giving in to those who would continue to destroy habitat or pollute streams. It means engaging actively at the local level to preserve ecological, economic and cultural values.

Yama would find many kindred spirits on the ranches and in the forests of central Idaho. Let's hope they don't have to bring in outside agitators to get the attention of this region's conservation community.