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Conservationists say luxury resort’s bright lights hurt endangered seabirds

Maui's Grand Wailea Resort's outdoor lighting attracts endangered Hawaiian petrels, which circle the lights until they fall to the ground from exhaustion.

(CN) — Conservation groups took Maui’s Grand Wailea Resort to court over claims that its bright outdoor lights are killing native seabirds, specifically the endangered Hawaiian petrel.

The federal lawsuit filed in the District of Hawaii claims that although the Grand Wailea recently made some changes in response to a letter from the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Wildlife Federation affiliate Conservation Council for Hawaii, the bright lights of the luxury beachfront resort continue to put petrels in peril.

“Conservation Council for Hawaii commends Grand Wailea's management for taking some initial steps to protect seabirds during last year’s fallout season,” said Moana Bjur, executive director at Conservation Council for Hawaii, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, fallout continued in 2021, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive modifications at the resort. It is our hope that we can come to a resolution with the Grand Wailea before the next fledging season begins in September."

She added, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is about to declare that eight native Hawaiian birds are now officially extinct. We need to do everything we can to prevent the Hawaiian petrel from being added to that list.”

The Hawaiian petrel is a large seabird with breeding colonies on Maui, in Haleakala crater, and on Lanai, across the ‘Au‘au Channel from the Grand Wailea, according to the complaint. Small small breeding colonies also exist on the Big Island and Kauai.

On Maui, they can be found nesting in volcanic rock crevices and arriving at breeding grounds in mid-February where pairs produce only one egg per year. Listed as an endangered species in 1967, their numbers have declined precipitously since the mid-1990s, which researchers attribute at least in part to the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

In a study published in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications, Andre Raine, a researcher at the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, said the birds face a wide array of threats and that “conservation effort needs to be focused on reducing power line collisions, fallout related to artificial lights, the control of introduced predators, and the overall protection of their breeding habitats.”

The bright lights of the Grand Wailea, a luxury beachfront resort, wreak havoc on the endangered birds. Petrels become disoriented and circle the lights until they either fall from exhaustion or run into buildings, the complaint says, noting that since 2008, 15 grounded petrels were found on the property by the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project. Nearly all were rescued, but one was dead.

Once grounded, petrels are vulnerable to predators, vehicle collisions, dehydration and starvation. The lawsuit says the seabird recovery project most recently recovered a grounded petrel near a Grand Wailea fountain during the October 2021 fledgling season.

“Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and on the basis thereof allege, that the MNSRP data reflect only the tip of the iceberg with respect to the harm that the Grand Wailea inflicts on endangered Hawaiian petrels. Data shows that people who are not seabird experts, such as hotel staff and guests, rarely discover grounded seabirds,” the complaint says. “Moreover, birds may crash into the nearby ocean or thick vegetation and not be recovered, in which case they likely perish. Finally, grounded seabirds that are eaten by on-site predators such as cats and mongoose prior to discovery are likewise excluded from MNSRP data documenting recovery of grounded seabirds that are discovered at the Grand Wailea.”

The conservation groups complain the Grand Wailea’s “unshielded spotlights, mercury vapor and metal halide lights, lighting in large pools, and beachfront tree and path lights” all contribute to petrel fallout.

“The Grand Wailea knows that its lights are harming imperiled seabirds on Maui. This isn’t rocket science — there are pragmatic, straightforward solutions the resort could — and, by law, should — be pursuing,” Leinā‘ala Ley, an attorney for the public interest organization Earthjustice said in a statement. “We’re taking the Grand Wailea to court to ensure the resort becomes a responsible neighbor, rather than watch native birds like the Hawaiian petrel disappear.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and Conservation Council seek an order declaring that the resort’s lights continue to harm Hawaiian petrels in violation of the Endangered Species Act, absent an “incidental take” permit, which allows private entities to proceed with projects that can injure or kill animals.

The Grand Wailea Resort, which is owned by Waldorf Astoria, said through a spokesperson, “While we do not comment on pending legal matters, we will respond appropriately to correct any misunderstandings about our record.”

In a statement sent to Courthouse News, the spokesperson said the resort strives to protect local wildlife.

“Grand Wailea has made sustainability and stewardship part of everything we do – from eliminating single-use plastics to prioritizing native plants and promoting reef-safe sunscreen. Protecting all wildlife in our community is of the utmost importance to us. To that end, we partnered with a leading local expert to assist our efforts to ensure native and endangered bird species can seamlessly coexist and flourish in and around Grand Wailea.”

The resort isn’t the first to face a lawsuit over its alleged threat to endangered petrels. In 2010, the Conservation Council filed lawsuits over the bright lights of the St. Regis Princeville Resort and the electric company Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. The utility eventually obtained an incidental take permit, and the resort settled its case with an agreement that included turning off fountain lights during fledgling season and implementing a search and rescue plan for grounded birds.

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