The Alala from Hell

many deaths within so short a time had rendered the all-or-nothing approach obsolete. John Marzluff and his backers on the 'Alala Recovery Team had apparently been vindicated. But now several team members, including Marzluff, demanded to know exactly why so many of the released 'alalaa had died.

"It's painfully obvious," Alan Lieberman reiterated. "There's no safe habitat!" Lieberman was also quick to point out that during the ART's six years in existence it had done little. It had not come up with a final recovery plan; had not made any specific recommendations to the state or to the Service for creating release sites free of cats, rats, mongooses, pigs, or mosquitoes; had not proposed an effective plan for managing the 'io, which was delivering a final blow to the wild birds; had not developed meaningful partnerships with private landowners; and had not come up with a plan for managing the several-thousand-acre 'alala reserve that the

Service was hoping to purchase. Who was the ART to point a finger at TPF, asked Lieberman?

But, keeping the spotlight on TPF, several ART members again demanded to know why so many young 'alala had died in the wild.

Responsibility for securing suitable habitat was not, in fact, TPF's; it belonged to the Service and its advisory body, the ART. As Cyndi Kuehler put it, "Cleaning up the habitat is way beyond TPF's role. We're a husbandry operation. We raise birds and release them. Shortly after that, the birds become the Service's responsibility." TPF was responsible for breeding the birds and for keeping them safe within a certain window of time after their release. Once outside this, the birds came under the jurisdiction of the Service — and, by association, the ART. All the 'alala had died outside the range of TPF's responsibility. Technically, they had died on the Service's watch. This made it difficult—but not impossible—to place blame directly on TPF for their deaths.

Suspecting that TPF's management of the young birds was to blame, the ART demanded that Kuehler and Lieberman surrender their data on the released birds—diet, weights, and any health or other problems. Kuehler and Lieberman immediately suspected that Marzluff and other team members were on a fishing expedition. Indeed, some team members apparently believed that transforming the release program into a retroactive study of the factors causing the deaths of the released 'alalaa would reveal incriminating evidence against TPF's management.

In response to the request, Kuehler said that "lack of data on exactly why the released birds succumbed to these threats is certainly a valid and understandable criticism from a scientific group like the ART. But that should be leveled at the Service, which hired TPF to raise and release 'alalaa, not do scientific research. That's not what we do, and that's not what our funding was for. To be angry at us for not conducting research is silly. The ART's eleventh hour call for us to become a research organization is an attempt to save its own skin. How could we ever trust that the information we did collect would be interpreted non-politically and not used against us?" The ART, on the other hand, interpreted resistance to yield the data as prima facie evidence of guilt.

Running parallel to the efforts of the ART was the work of an informal group of ranchers, federal biologists, and other concerned individuals known as the 'Alalaa Partnership. The Partnership was to be, in theory, an open and apolitical venue for discussing problems, differences, and ideas, thereby defusing political tension surrounding the 'alalaa. According to Cynthia Salley, who was a mainstay of the Partnership, the group "was meant to be an open forum for honest discussion, and so it sometimes became a guts-on-the-table discussion. During Partnership meetings, feelings could be directly vented, unlike in the ART, where grudges and anger consequently sometimes became manifested in hidden agendas." While the Partnership had no official decision-making power, it had plenty of goodwill.

On May 4, 1998, the Partnership met and spoke, among other things, about the deaths of the released birds. TPF's Lieberman was at that meeting, as well as his colleague, the soft-spoken Peter Harrity. During the discussion, Harrity mentioned that Scott Derrickson, director of the 'Alalaa Recovery Team, had earlier asked him for the measurements and weights of all the captive-raised birds. Harrity, who tended to give others the benefit of the doubt, had told Derrickson he'd look into the request. The Partnership meeting was the first time Lieberman had heard about the request.

Derrickson and the ART, meanwhile, who had been confident that Harrity would get the data for them, had already contracted with veterinarian Thierry Work, who had necropsied some of the ill-fated birds, to analyze the weights and other information that he felt—wrongly—would be forthcoming. Work would "provide his interpretation of the morbidity and mortality patterns of 'alala released to date." But when Harrity told him about the request at the Partnership meeting, Lieberman, suspecting that the jig was up, said that TPF would not release the data until he could be assured that it would be used fairly. Lieberman's hesitance infuriated the ART when members heard about it. Work, meanwhile, decided to get the information through another channel, and this meant the Service field team, which possessed some of TPF's data. It was upon this information that Work based his subsequent analysis.

At the ART meeting in November 1998, Work presented his findings in a "good-faith attempt to stimulate discussion and improve the reintroduction program." He told the ART that the weight data suggested that TPF had prematurely released some of the 'alala and that their low weights may have contributed to their untimely deaths. It was an explosive allegation — all the more so because Work had not yet run his conclusions by either Lieberman or Kuehler.

At the meeting Harrity objected, suggesting that Work's analysis amounted to scapegoating. "It makes it sound like the Peregrine Fund is doing a bad job" and "puts out bad birds!" But other team members were impressed by Work's initial findings and asked him to get even more data to analyze. Marzluff suggested that a virtual dossier be compiled on every bird from birth to death, with duplicate records of weight, diet, and other aspects sent to the ART and other interested parties. The smoking gun, some ART members believed, had been found, and Lieberman and Kuehler had gunpowder on their hands.

"I taught Marzluff how to raise crows for his own research," Kuehler bitterly complained one rainy afternoon at TPF's bird conservation center in Volcano. "Now he's become the expert on how to raise crows and is looking for flaws in our program." Several days after the meeting, when Kuehler and Lieberman saw

Work's analysis for the first time, Lieberman said he nearly "spontaneously combusted." Kuehler, meanwhile, analyzed Work's data herself. She then sent her critique to the Service, indicating that Work's analysis was a circus of errors. She pointed out, for example, that Work had analyzed only a portion of the relevant data. He had also, she said, made inaccurate comparisons between birds that invalidated his conclusions. Work's information was "inaccurate, incomplete and incorrectly analyzed. We . . . request that in the future when information relating to a TPF program is presented . . . that we have the opportunity to review the information and correct any errors prior to distribution," she wrote.

When Work got a copy of the letter, he blamed the Service field team for giving him bad data. Later he admitted that his analysis "may depict a misleading picture."

Cynthia Salley, who dubbed the fiasco "Datagate," chastised the ART for attempting to "pursue an agenda against other members" and accused Marzloff, Fitzpatrick, Derrickson, and Dave Ledig, another Service employee, of teaming up against TPF to deflect blame for the collapsing propagation program. As Salley explained it, Work "had not checked his sources or the accuracy of the data he received," leading to the erroneous conclusion that 'alala were being released underweight.

Undeterred by Work's bungled analysis or Salley's reproach, the ART still called for more TPF data. When the Service, acting at the behest of the ART, wrote a letter requesting it, Kuehler and Lieberman responded that they were, understandably, "hesitant" to share it with "individuals who have misrepresented our information in the past."

Datagate, meanwhile, had distracted almost everyone's attention from the 'alala program's real failure—the lack of safe habitat for young 'alala. "Truly depressing," Kuehler said. "We can breed, hatch and raise them but the habitat cannot support them. It doesn't seem to matter how many captive-reared birds you throw the 'alala from hell 201

out there, they are not going to survive with rats, cats, mongoose, toxoplasmosis, avian malaria, 'io, avian pox and degraded forest." Without an outright purchase of a large tract of land by the federal or state government, Kuehler believed, and without money to restore that habitat, the 'alala was lost.

Meanwhile, the well-intended Partnership meetings continued. At one of them, a Service biologist presented the results of a computer prediction of what would happen to the population if the 'alala continued to die at the present rate—that is, assuming that releases continued. In response, Keith Unger quipped: "We don't need a computer analysis of the obvious. If they keep dying like this, there won't be any left." As for Salley, she was completely fed up. On May 25, 1999, she delivered to the Partnership what would become known as "The Sermon":

This is going to really sound weird, coming from me, but... in order to look at ourselves holistically, we need to probe a lot deeper and take a good look at and in—our souls. ... If we are not in touch with our souls, we won't be in touch with or experience love in its deepest sense. If we are not in touch with our souls, we won't be in touch with our code of honor or our ability to accept responsibility for our actions or inactions. . . .

A lot of time has passed and a lot of water has gone over the dam. . . . Emails have whizzed around in cyberspace, chatting and chatting have gone on over the clotheslines (or more accurately the phone line), perceptible attempts have been made to discredit a variety of people, so many fingers have been pointed in so many different directions that it is impossible to follow them (thank goodness!), behind-the-scenes politicking and manipulation is rampant, rudeness and anger have been in the forefront. A little maturity has prevailed recently, but it's all about to hit the fan anew and I hope that, once again, selfish motives are not the force pushing the behind-the-scenes attempt to discredit. What a shame. If only all of that energy could go into positive open and constructive dialog; something that will help the 'alala instead of pursuing personal agendas.

The Peregrine Fund is the greatest thing that has happened to the 'alala captive breeding program, since its inception. If their success rate for hatching, rearing and hacking had only been minusculely met over the past two decades, the 'alala wouldn't be in the position we find them in today. When the chips are down it's only natural to react, blame and find a scapegoat. You need to look somewhere else; The Peregrine Fund has done an exemplary job.

Then, in a single enlightened moment, Salley seemed to sum up Datagate with the question "Are we having a problem over data that we don't even need to collect?"


Q THE EVENING OF December 2, 1999, I met Alan Lieberman and Cyndi Kuehler for dinner at Kilauea Lodge, nestled at the edge of the cloud forest in Ka'u at 3,500 feet. Between sips of red wine and the intermittent clinking of silver on china, they expressed regrets and, at times, bitterness.

The Peregrine Fund's participation in the project would end the next month, in January 2000, when the Zoological Society of San Diego would assume responsibility for the 'alalaa, they said. Kuehler and Lieberman, however, planned to remain in Hawai'i after all and work for the program. They put the best spin they could on the transfer. The San Diego Zoo's entry onto the scene would "take the program to the next level," and "the 'alalaa work was getting too big for our size organization." All of which was true. But not the whole truth.

Back in Boise, Idaho, TPF leadership was tired of the organization's being the lightning rod for bad press and all the problems of working on environmental issues in Hawai'i. As TPF's president, Bill Burnham, said, "Even if you do good work you get beat up there."

It all added up to TPF now wanting out of the program no less than the Division of Forestry and Wildlife's Michael Buck had wanted out years earlier. He'd gotten the state out by getting TPF in. Now it was TPF's turn to get out—by getting the Zoological Society in. It was musical lightning rods.

Most important, TPF needed to cut its political losses. "At this point, there is a real question about the 'alala's ability to survive," Kuehler told me at dinner that night. "I doubt it will ever be reestablished in the wild. I think there is a real question ofwhether the 'alalaa can be maintained even in captivity. It is so inbred that it may just die out from attrition. The efforts may have come too late. We are realizing now that a lot of our problems in captivity are behavioral, like incompatibility of breeding pairs and nest attentiveness—the result of the isolated rearing of 'alala in the early years. It's a problem that can't be fixed.

"We're also going to lose our two best breeders over the next few years because they are very old. All the money in the world cannot make them younger. We're very worried about it. The 'alala is probably not going to go extinct from the earth anytime soon, but we'll probably never see them in the wild again."

Lieberman kept an ear to the conversation as he put a triangular bite of sirloin into his mouth and beads of light rain struck the restaurant windowpane. "In retrospect, we were being used," Kuehler continued. "The state wanted us here because they knew that raising the 'alalaa in captivity would give the appearance of doing all that could be done. But then the state didn't make the commitment to give us places to release them. The state had it both ways—good publicity, but no responsibility for the 'alala. We fell into that trap.

"Our instincts said no. We failed to face the fact that the state asked us to be there not for the 'alalaa but as a face-saving measure for their failures. Once the publicity turned toward the success of captive breeding, even if this would not save the 'alala, the state was

AlalaFamily Tree

January 2000

free to leave without being seen as abandoning the 'alalaa. Captive breeding without improved habitat would not save the 'alalaa. We felt that putting birds into the wild would force the state to manage habitat for them. The state refused because it had already achieved its goal: to escape from the 'alala debacle it had created.

"In retrospect, we should have been a lot more vocal and ornery about the state's failure to manage habitat, explaining that the released 'alalaa were dying as a result. We also would have taken a harder stand against the Service's failures to secure habitat for the 'alalaa."

After we said good-bye that evening, I sat on a bench beneath the restaurant's porch light and opened my journal to the 'alalaa family tree. Virtually all its leaves had fallen. If things continued this way, they would not return next spring. The 'alalaa family tree was dying.

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