UH Hilo’s Center for Maunakea Stewardship: Update on silversword recovery efforts

Silversword seeds first sown at UH Hilo’s Maunakea Stewardship Center greenhouse in February 2022 have sprouted into more than 100 seedlings that are now three to seven inches tall.

Keiki silverswords.
More than 100 seedlings first sprouted in February 2022 are now ready to outplant in a fenced enclosure within the Maunakea Forest Reserve. (Courtesy photo)

Efforts to re-establish the highly endangered silversword on Maunakea are germinating through a partnership between the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Center for Maunakea Stewardship in partnership with the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Silversword seeds first sown at the stewardship center’s greenhouse at the Halepōhaku mid-level facility in February 2022 sprouted into more than 100 seedlings and are now three to seven inches tall. Stewardship staff are preparing to outplant the silversword in a fenced enclosure within the Maunakea Forest Reserve.

Justin Yeh pictured
Justin Yeh

“I want this partnership to continue and be an example of what we can do if we work together as conservation agencies,” says Justin Yeh, resource manager at the Center for Maunakea Stewardship. “Not only for silverswords but for all the reforestation efforts around the higher elevations of Maunakea. We want to be a hub for restoration, astronomy and education. This partnership is a step in the right direction.”

High risk of extinction

The introduction of hooved animals on Maunakea in the late 1700s severely impacted the silversword population, according to experts. In 1986, it was declared an endangered species at high risk of extinction. The Division of Forestry and Wildlife launched propagation efforts in the mid-1970s that also expanded significantly in the early 1990s.

In January 2023, more than 7,000 seeds were sown at the Maunakea stewardship greenhouse and will continue to be nurtured by staff. The goal of ongoing stewardship program with the state agency is to continue to raise seedlings in the greenhouse and outplant them at reintroduction sites across Maunakea where previous plantings have been successful and that offer protection from hooved animals.

“There’s no words that can express how my heart feels to see this happening and to know that the silversword hopefully will be preserved for generations to come,” says Patty Heidenfeldt, a native plant restoration specialist at the Center for Maunakea Stewardship.

Throughout the past three decades, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife has reintroduced thousands of silverswords on Maunakea. According to scientists, it is important to continue to incorporate seedlings from additional wild individuals, such as the seedlings currently being grown, to help increase genetic diversity, which will give the plants a better chance to adapt to changes in their environment caused by factors such as invasive species and climate change.

Increasing the number of silverswords on Maunakea can also help expand food and habitat sources for native insects such as Agrotis helela and A. kuamauna, two moths unique to Hawaiʻi Island.

Silversword growing in rocky terrain on Maunakea.
Silverswords growing in the wild on Maunakea. In 1986, silversword was declared an endangered species at high risk of extinction. (Courtesy photo)

Mālama Maunakea

Two women working in greehouse.
Staff at the Center for Maunakea care for silverswords inside a greenhouse on Maunakea. (Courtesy photo)

The Center for Maunakea Stewardship oversees regular monitoring of native and invasive species on Maunakea, and has been commended for its innovative efforts in native plant restoration and invasive species management.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the native wēkiu bug from the candidate endangered species list in 2011, after land stewards compiled years of research on the insect’s biology, genetics and habitat, assuring its conservation and protection. The endemic bug can only be found on pu‘u (cinder cones) on the summit of Maunakea.

In 2019, the Center for Maunakea Stewardship launched a native plant restoration project around the Visitor Information Station at the 9,000 foot elevation on Maunakea aimed at enhancing the area’s ecosystem with both common and rare native plants to help provide a habitat refuge for native birds.

In 2012, the center launched the Mālama Maunakea campaign, which connects community volunteers to help in resource management and stewardship on the mauna. As of February 2023, the center’s land stewards have propagated thousands of native plants such as māmane, ‘āweoweo, ‘ena‘ena, pāwale, pūkiawe, Dubautia arborea (Mauna Kea Dubautia) and native grasses.

Working classrooms

The Center for Maunakea Stewardship is currently on a path to expand its conservation work on Maunakea and extend more opportunities to the community and visitors who come to the mid-level elevation to acclimate. The center’s land stewards envision creating a working classroom within the mid-level elevation on Maunakea, such as providing UH student internships and field trip sites to teach Hawai‘i’s keiki about evolution and subalpine and alpine zones.

“We want to welcome visitors, scholarly groups, researchers, conservationists, cultural practitioners to enjoy an area where it is considered restored,” says Yeh.

Media release at UH System News.

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