In Western popular culture, bats are associated with scary things like Halloween and Dracula.
But on the North Shore, residents are rallying in defense of the tiny flying mammal known as the Hawaiian hoary bat, the opeapea, a nocturnal tree-roosting creature that feeds on insects.
Bats have always been viewed differently in Hawaii. This tiny furry animal, which has a 1-foot wingspan but weighs less than 1 ounce, somehow managed to cross the vast Pacific to arrive here eons ago and is now an endangered species.
The bats also hold a special place in local culture. To Hawaiians, the bat is sacred, an aumakua, a family ancestor god, worthy of worship and respect.
“The cultural perception of bats in Western society is associated with vampires and horror stories, but the perspective from Hawaii and Polynesia puts them in a different light, like part of your family, like a pet,” said Kahuku resident Tevita O. Kaili, an associate professor of international cultural studies at Brigham Young University.
That’s why the state’s proposal to allow more bats to be killed at the Kawailoa Wind Farm is raising hackles all over the North Shore.
“We’re all appalled,” said Kathleen Pahinui, chairwoman of the North Shore Neighborhood Board. “Here’s a native species, and we want to kill it off. It’s just so wrong.”
The Kawailoa Wind Farm, which consists of 30 wind turbines 493 feet high from ground level to the tip of the rotor blades, was constructed in 2012. Kawailoa is the biggest wind farm in the state, straddling two ridges on the North Shore, looming over Haleiwa and the Waimea Valley. It produces up to 69 megawatts of electricity, power that is sold to Hawaiian Electric Co., helping to reduce the state’s need for fossil fuels.
People were aware when the project was first proposed that some birds and bats would be injured or killed by the spinning blades, and limits were imposed on how many animal fatalities would be permitted.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, eager to promote sources of clean energy, gave the wind farm permission to kill up to 60 of the bats over a 20-year period. Six years later, it is believed that 83 bats have already been killed, based on a count of carcasses and statistical analysis, according to state officials.
The wind farm has petitioned the state for permission to “take” 265 bats instead, and has offered a complex 155-page mitigation package to state officials to induce them to amend the original Habitat Conservation Plan. The decision on accepting the amendment rests with the same state department that gave the wind farm its original approval. The process also requires the state to seek public comment.
Officials at HECO and Kawailoa Wind Farm have described the situation as balancing two competing needs – protecting both wildlife and the environment.
“We believe that the decision-makers will do what is right and fair when it comes to protecting the environment, including endangered species, and advancing a clean energy future,” said Shannon Tangonan, a spokeswoman for HECO.
“There are a lot of people who really care about bats and their cultural importance,” said Brita Woeck, environmental compliance manager for Kawailoa Wind Farm, which is owned by New York-based D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments.
On the other hand, the wind power being produced by the Kawailoa operation is “going to reduce reliance on fossil fuels … and is a step toward fighting climate change,” she said.
Kawailoa has begun turning off the turbines at night at times when wind speeds are low, which is when bats are at greatest risk.
The company has also started using a still-experimental acoustic bat deterrent technology that emits a sound that bats find annoying and bat activity is being monitored through the use of thermal imaging cameras to see if it is effective. The new technology is unproven, but it has had “promising results,” Woeck said. If it is effective, it will be installed on all turbines at Kawailoa, she said.
At a public hearing in Wahiawa, state land use officials said that Kawailoa has promised to contribute $2.75 million toward the acquisition of the Helemano Wilderness Recreation Area, which would allow 1,614 acres of land to be protected, and has pledged to restore and manage additional land parcels to provide more natural habitats for bats.
In recent meetings in Waialua and Wahiawa, local residents voiced their opposition to the proposal and resentment of how the state has handled the process.
At the North Shore Neighborhood Board meeting at Waialua Elementary School on Nov. 27, state Sen. Gil Riviere said the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife was planning to hold a hastily convened public hearing on the plan in two days, and that residents had only a short window to express their opposition to the amendment to the habitat plan.
“Wind energy is not necessarily clean, green and perfect,” he said.
Two days later on Nov. 29, about a dozen area residents, including at least three members of the neighborhood board, went to the hearing to protest the plan. Another attendee passed around a printout of a change.org petition that has attracted more than 420 supporters that asks the state to shut down turbine operations at night, when the bats go out looking for food.
Neighborhood board member Thomas Shirai Jr., who is Native Hawaiian, strongly criticized the wind farm and state officials for being willing to kill 265 bats. Bats, he said, are “ohana,” or part of the family to Hawaiians, and they should be preserved.
“How many bats are you killing?” he asked. “Why is that OK? If that’s an endangered species, why is it right to kill 40 or 60 of them?”
He also questioned how the wind farm was handling the remains of the bats that had been killed.
“Did you put them in garbage bags and throw them away?” he asked. “Was there any burial treatment? We treat them like human remains.”
Bonnie Cordeiro, a therapist from Haleiwa, showed up with two stuffed toys representing bats and sat near the front of the room to underscore her support for the creatures.
“You use the word ‘take,’ a nice euphemism,” she told state environmental officials. “It is a killing, a killing of the animal. This whole thing is so backwards.”
Several speakers pressed for details about the extent of the bat population. State officials said they didn’t know, explaining that the species is difficult to find and study. People asked the officials why they were willing to kill the bats if they didn’t know the size of the surviving population.
Two neighborhood board members suggested last week that state officials had scheduled the event to minimize community attendance. At the board meeting in Waialua, board member Sharlyn Foo pointedly questioned the time set for the event, 6 p.m., and the location in Wahiawa, which she said made it inconvenient for working North Shore residents to attend.
Shirai made the same point to state officials two days later at the hearing.
“You would have had four, five, six times the input if it was closer to home,” Shirai said.
Given the intensity of community interest, DLNR officials said they had decided to extend the period for public comments on the Kawailoa revised habitat plan for two months, to Feb. 21.
But state officials are already signaling their intention to move toward speedy approval of Kawailoa’s request, which included the proposed $2.75 million for a land purchase at Helemano Wilderness Recreation Area.
The draft amendment was officially submitted to DLNR on Oct. 11. Two weeks later, on Oct. 25, Gov. David Ige announced the land acquisition at Helemano Wilderness Recreation Area, with part of the funding – $2.75 million – already provided by Kawailoa Wind, according to a press release from the governor.
In the press release, the governor called the transaction “a terrific win for the community and the environment.”
Woeck, the Kawailoa compliance officer, said the wind farm had given the money to the state “to proactively initiate additional bat mitigation efforts” by acquiring land for the wilderness area.
“We understand that we are taking a risk in implementing mitigation with no guarantee of permit approval” Woeck wrote in an email.
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