Endangered bird trumps high school football, tradition in Hawaii

September 21, 2010 | By PACIFIC LEGAL FOUNDATION

Author: Brandon Middleton

The Kauai Interscholastic Federation is a high school athletics league in Hawaii.  Like so many other leagues in the country, the KIF is strapped for cash.

So why would the league switch its games from the traditional Friday night lights to Saturday afternoons, when Saturday games mean hotter temperatures, fewer fans, and smaller gate revenues–not to mention increased heat risks to players?

The answer: it's for the birds.  Endangered Newell's shearwater birds, that is.

It turns out that the KIF has elected not to play on Friday nights due to the possibility that stadium lights would attract and disorient the birds, leading to the birds becoming entangled in power lines and possibly dying.

As the shearwater bird is a federally-protected species under the Endangered Species Act, the KIF determined that the potential financial liability for harm to the birds would be greater than the loss of revenue resulting from no longer playing on Friday nights.  So no more Friday night football, even if that means fewer parents will be able to see their children on the gridiron.

From the Honolulu Star-Advertiser:

As of Wednesday, when the bird's fledgling season began, the league was subject to law that protects the endemic species — Federal Endangered Species Act and HRS 195C-4. Drawn to the lights of the island's many venues, including the biggest ones at Vidinha Stadium in Lihue, the winged babies become disoriented and can plummet into power lines.

By law, the KIF can be fined $10,000 for each Newell's shearwater that dies as a result of artificial lighting from its rented county facility, according to KIF executive director Diane Nitta. . . .

Five years ago, it was the Hawaiian petrel that gained notice. The league began to alter its lighting at gyms, and that seemed to work well. The death of a petrel caused by humans is even more severe — a $20,000 penalty.

For fans, it's a break from tradition. Vidinha draws 4,000 to 5,000 fans for the biggest KIF football games. At Kapaa and Hanapepe, crowds of 1,200 to 1,500 are the norm. Longtime radio play-by-play broadcaster Joel Pahukula sees a financial hit coming to the KIF, which has long been a league with devoted football fans.

"The heat on the west side, Hanapepe is brutal," he said. "Kids will need to hydrate and a lot of people will have problems with the heat. A lot of people can't go to the (afternoon) game. I think we'll lose half (in attendance)."

If revenues are cut even by just a third, that could mean a dip of roughly $8,000 for each game at Vidinha Stadium and $2,400 at other sites. With nine game dates, protection of Newell's shearwaters will mean a loss of about $38,000 at the gate — a conservative figure — for a league strapped for money.

Factor in massive losses of revenue for athletic programs at the concession stand — and the hit is a standing-8 count, at the very least.

"Every year, we've had to do something more. Having games in the day was talked about five years ago," Nitta said. "The county will retrofit (lights at) Vidinha Stadium, but it won't be done until 2011. Nitta believes the community will turn out in full force despite the change.

"I hope our community is still very supportive. I think they are. We're hopeful," she said.

Pahukula, who grew up in Anahola, is less optimistic. "We want to be sensitive to the environment and animals, but this bird, you can't hunt it, you can't eat it. Its feathers can't be used for anything. It has no bearing on the community," he said."No other animal is above it in the food chain or considers it a food source. It doesn't have a whole lot of meat on it."

True or not, the KIF is in no position to mess with the fragility of an island's ecosystem. Pahukula just doesn't think it's worth the trade-off for parents who are free to watch their children only at night.

"Too many people work on Saturdays," he said.