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Environmental groups sue Maui resort over endangered seabird injuries

Despite a settlement reached two years ago, Hawaiian petrels continue to be harmed by bright lights in Grand Wailea, in violation of federal law, plaintiffs allege.

A new lawsuit seeks to protect Maui's endangered seabirds from bright lights at the Grand Wailea Resort.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in federal district court on Thursday on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii and the Center for Biological Diversity. The goal is to force the hotel to dim or otherwise alter the artificial lighting so that endangered Hawaiian petrels are not attracted to it and become wounded or exhausted, falling to the ground and injured or killed.

Federal regulators listed the Hawaiian petrel as endangered in 1967. The nocturnal seabird, also called “ua'u,” has a wingspan of about 3 feet and likes to burrow in high-altitude rocky outcroppings. Adults can live to be around 30 years old.

Hawaiian petrels have been on the endangered species list since 1967. (DLNR)

Threats to its nesting site have resulted in few places left in Hawaii where Hawaiian petrels live and give birth. These include Maui's Haleakala Crater, the West Maui Mountains, Mauna Kea and Moana Loa on the Big Island, and Waimea Canyon on Kauai, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The dispute over how to prevent petrel deaths at Grand Wailea appeared to have subsided in 2022 after the resort and plaintiffs agreed to a settlement in October of that year. But Jonee Peters, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, said in a news release that petrels have continued to die at the resort since then.

“It is completely unacceptable for the Grand Wailea to put its corporate profits ahead of the well-being of our native seabirds,” Peters said.

A spokesman for Grand Wailea said the hotel, a Waldorf-Astoria resort, was disappointed by the lawsuit.

“Grand Wailea is wholeheartedly committed to protecting and nurturing Maui’s rich biodiversity. That's why we've worked tirelessly with local experts to implement world-class measures to ensure the safety of these seabirds. We have and will continue to act in full compliance with the terms set forth in our prior agreement,” Dylan Beesley, senior vice president at Bennett Group Strategic Communications, which handles Grand Wailea’s public relations, said in a statement.

Grand Wailea says it will continue to act in accordance with the terms of a 2022 legal settlement regarding the seabirds. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Since the settlement was signed, three stranded young birds have appeared at the resort, the plaintiffs say, and it is possible that more have died from dehydration, starvation, injuries and attacks from predators such as cats, mongooses and rats.

The deaths violate the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the hotel from harming petrels “unless it first secures a permit and then follows it to ensure its activities do not bring the species closer to extinction.” said Earthjustice attorney Leina'ala Ley in the press release.

In an interview, she noted that the largest breeding colony of Hawaiian petrels was on Haleakala and that Grand Wailea was directly downstream from one of the birds' preferred flight routes.

Injuries and deaths of endangered Hawaiian seabirds are not unique to Grand Wailea.

On Kauai, Oahu, the Big Island and elsewhere on Maui, there have been legal and regulatory battles over bright lights from facilities such as parking lots, stadiums, airports and utility lines. In addition to petrels, artificial light has contributed to a sharp decline in Hawaii's threatened population of shearwaters and petrels.

In 2022, Maui County passed an ordinance to reduce the amount of artificial light to protect migrating seabirds and sea turtles, which also become disoriented by the light, mistaking it for moonlight used for navigation.

According to the bill, all outdoor lighting fixtures, with the exception of neon lights, must limit the short-wave portion of blue light to no more than 2%. Mercury vapor should not be used in new outdoor lighting fixtures.

The bill's effective date was July 1, 2023, with a three-year transition period to give businesses and others time to comply. Earthjustice was among the organizations that testified in support of the regulation.

Read the complaint here.

Civil Beat's coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Civil Beat's coverage of environmental issues on Maui is supported by grants from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the Hawaii Wildfires Recovery Fund, the Knight Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation.

Anna Harden

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