KAILUA-KONA — The state is sending reinforcements to West Hawaii to help aid in the fight against little fire ants (LFA), an invasive species that’s grown steadily more prevalent in the region over the last decade.
Lawmakers included $200,000 in the state budget to support education and outreach in West Hawaii and establish a full-time position to direct efforts on the leeward side through the Hawaii Ant Lab of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit of the University of Hawaii.
“It’s a great start. Certainly more would be better, but we really need staff,” said Carolyn Dillon, founder of the LFA Hui, which lobbied West Hawaii legislators to push for more support of the issue this session. “There’s an ongoing need on this side for education and assistance. We’re pulling staff from Hilo to come over here and that’s creating inefficiencies for Hawaii Ant Lab.”
Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona, introduced House Bill 2046 to establish the new position and secure the funding. However, the measure became redundant once the funds were included in the state budget.
After a legislative shuffle, HB 2046, which is currently in conference committee, has become a vehicle for the creation of the Hawaii Invasive Species Authority, which is related to protection against LFA but has a much wider function on a much broader scale.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-Oahu, introduced Senate Bill 2399 to develop the authority, an administrative entity with “more clout” to replace the Hawaii Invasive Species Council and help facilitate the implementation of priorities outlined in the ambitious 10-year Hawaii Interagency Biosecurity Plan.
The measure stalled in the House and when HB 2046 crossed over to the Senate, the Senate Ways and Means Committee included in the bill the language from SB 2399 by way of the amendment process.
Gabbard, presiding over the conference committee on HB 2046 as Senate chair, said the creation of the authority will allow for better funding and ease cooperation among several agencies relevant to Hawaii’s biosecurity plan, including state departments of Health, Agriculture and Land and Natural Resources.
“Establishing the authority will raise the profile of this issue in the state government and allow us to bring more attention and resources to bear to address … little fire ants or any other existing invasive species, or new ones that may arise,” he continued.
Lowen, who is presiding over HB 2046 in conference committee as House co-chairman, said she supports the concept of the authority.
“The deliberation now is about if that’s what’s needed, if we can do it, if we can do it this year and if we should do it this year even if we can’t fully fund it,” she said. “We probably couldn’t fund all the positions this year.”
Also included in discussions around HB 2046 will be the purpose behind another bill introduced by Lowen this session, HB 2045.
That measure, which died in the House, would have allowed relevant authorities to enter private property and administer LFA treatments as long as there was a “reasonable suspicion” LFA existed there, whether it had been positively identified yet or not.
“That language isn’t in (HB 2046),” Lowen said. “But it could get stuck in there if there’s a will to do that because it would fit in.”
Dillon said she and the LFA Hui would support such an amendment, as anything to raise awareness and combat complacency is still crucial in the early stages of West Hawaii efforts by groups like the LFA Hui, Hawaii Ant Lab and the Big Island Invasive Species Committee to contain LFA infestations.
“Half-measures are not going to work,” Dillon said. “I hear so often people saying, ‘I have (LFA) but it’s not really that bad.’ If they don’t do something, it’s going to get bad. And that’s part of education. I would say the majority of people still don’t understand.”