Images by John Hook

As the flashing blades of Oʻahu’s 42 wind turbines swoop through the cool morning air on December 5, 2018, attorney Maxx Phillips stands in Honolulu’s first circuit court, directing Judge Jeff Crabtree’s attention to an iPhone-sized plexiglass box perched at the edge of her podium. Inside it is a lifeless ʻōpeʻapeʻa, or Hawaiian hoary bat, the state’s official, and only endemic, land mammal.

From his bench, Crabtree can hardly discern the tiny specimen’s features, like its namesake streaks of hoary fur. At least that’s what Phillips is counting on, since her opponents, California-based wind energy company Nā Pua Makani Power Partners and the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, had sought to assure Crabtree of Nā Pua Makani’s ability to spot all bats its proposed wind turbines will “take,” the legal term for kill.

Bat deaths increasingly occur via wind-turbine strikes and barotrauma—lung explosions caused by sudden changes to proximal air pressure. Since 2012, the collective blades of the white monoliths on Oʻahu and Maui have already killed far more than the officially allowed total of 92 bats over 25 years, leading every wind company to request higher take licenses. Should the state grant all pending requests, the total number of bats that could legally be killed would increase to nearly 500. Meanwhile, everyone involved is flying blind, moving forward without even a clear estimate of how many ʻōpeʻapeʻa exist in the wild. In 2015, DLNR estimated the population could be just upwards of a few thousand or as low as a few hundred.

FLUX Gone With the Wind

“On a 700-acre parcel, you’re not going to find the bats,” Phillips tells me after the hearing. She is appealing DLNR’s approval of Nā Pua Makani’s plan to build up to 17 wind turbines in Kahuku while the company funds bat research and long-term habitat conservation plans to make up for its expected take. This plan is unacceptable to many North Shore residents including Phillips, who is working pro bono, and her client, the nonprofit Keep the North Shore Country.

Phillips borrowed her courtroom bat from Molly Hagemann, vertebrate zoology collections manager at Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. Hagemann tracks the institution’s collection of 140 ʻōpeʻapeʻa with a spreadsheet, which inadvertently records the many ways American development has intruded on the bats through the years. Donated carcasses trace their deaths to the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, Molokaʻi Airport, Maʻalaea Power Plant, the military’s Pōhakuloa Training Area, and the fences enclosing Haleakalā National Park. The oldest specimen in the collection, a skull and skin from Kauaʻi, was given to the fledgling museum by expat rancher George Campbell Munro in 1893—the same year white businessmen ousted Queen Liliʻuokalani. While on house arrest in her own palace, the queen translated the Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant which describes “hairy bats” and Pe‘ape‘a, “the great god of bats,” who gets his eight eyes scratched out by the demigod Maui.

Today, native narratives with the power to sacralize ʻōpeʻapeʻa—stories that once sufficiently accounted for and protected the animal in an energy-independent Hawaiʻi—have been pushed to the wings of public discourse. Taking center stage are empirical news of turbine take, archaeological finds of subspecies clades, and genetically verified arrival dates of the early ʻōpeʻapeʻa that migrated in two waves, 10,000 and then 800 years ago. Meanwhile, Bishop’s collection grows at a steady clip. Nearly all its new specimens come from wind farms, including eight from Kawailoa Wind Farm, 14 miles from Kahuku.

“[The Kawailoa] wind farm has taken far more bats than any other wind farm,” Phillips says. In court, Nā Pua Makani argues there is an upside to this increase in specimens for study. “They’re like, ‘Well, if it wasn’t for all the bats that we’re killing, you guys wouldn’t know anything about the bats,’ which I kind of want to challenge.” Underpinning Phillips’ challenge are the state and federal endangered species acts, which require violators to make up for animal deaths in real time.

“It’s really rare that research will qualify as mitigation in state and federal endangered species law,” Phillips says. In its official statement allowing Nā Pua Makani to build its wind farm in Kahuku, DLNR declared the priority of “helping Hawai‘i achieve its self-imposed target of 100 percent of its electric power from renewable energy by 2045, set by Governor Ige in June of 2015.” The statement also contradictorily added that “the project will spend up to $4.6 million dollars to assure there will be no negative impacts to Hawai‘i’s environment and native and protected species.”

“More dead bats doesn’t equal more bats,” says Phillips. “Our community includes the plants and animals that were there before us. And, so, when I think about the ʻōpeʻapeʻa on Oʻahu, those are my ʻōpeʻapeʻa. I have a kuleana to them, as a community we have a kuleana to them. What are we doing if we’re not taking care of our own community members?”

The same day that Phillips presents her bat in court, over on Maui, wildlife ecologist Dave Johnston packs headlamps, poles, and nets. “We’re going to go mist-netting this evening,” he tells me over the phone, referring to a technique that involves stretching mesh between wide poles like a giant volleyball net. “We’re trying to catch more bats in the winter right now so that we can get a handle on what their home ranges are.”

Johnston works for H.T. Harvey and Associates, a Monterey-based ecological consulting firm that has studied bat-fatality mitigation for several Hawai‘i wind-energy companies, including SunEdison and First Wind. Johnston got involved eight years ago. “My recommendation at that point was to study the bat so that we knew what insects it ate, and once we knew that, we could figure out presumably which plants are hosts to those insects,” he says. In theory, when all of these insects, and the plants that they eat, have been identified, the wind-energy companies will then be able to start planting restoration sites to support ʻōpeʻapeʻa.

Through a mix of lures that emit high-pitched bat calls and detectors that record the chirps and squeaks of passing bats, Johnston has gotten a feel for their favorite haunts. When his three-person team manages to catch a bat, the dirty work begins. “We collect some fecal pellets if we can,” he explains, “and this has insect parts that we then run through a DNA barcode analysis.”

While some distrust a plan that is, well, bat shit, Johnston and other researchers are making game-changing discoveries. Maui bats, for example, were once presumed to hibernate in Haleakalā Crater during the winter. That changed when Johnston drove to the summit in 2017. “The whole road up to Haleakalā was just iced over, black ice, and they closed the road,” he says. “Once it cleared and I got up there, there were all these shrubs in bloom, and when we started catching bats, they went right up to the top, and they were foraging on a lot of insects—in the middle of winter!”

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Determining bat behavior and range is vital to effective mitigation, specifically “curtailment,” a method which entails slowing or shutting off wind turbines when the bats are especially active. Smart curtailment represents a good fix for Maxx Phillips. “We have a way that we can minimize how many bats are being killed, which is what the law requires,” she says, “and the wind farms aren’t doing it. And this new project isn’t doing it.”

Though Johnston is confident in his holistic mitigation plan, he also realizes that it might be best suited to the current scale of wind-farm operations and the current climate. “There is going to be more and more pressure here in Hawaiʻi and on the Mainland to put up more wind turbines, all of which will take more bats,” he says. “I’m worried for the Hawaiian hoary bat, but I’m also worried about bats around the world.”

Johnston’s team fails to net any bats on this trip. Undeterred, he heads toward reliable bat activity at Kamehameha Schools’ Maui campus in Pukalani, where he started the ʻŌpeʻapeʻa Club with school counselor Kekaula Campbell. Each week, club members conduct outreach, study the Hawaiian cultural significance of ʻōpeʻapeʻa, and research their ecology. In the spring of 2018, the club presented a research poster at the Hawaiʻi Conservation Conference in Honolulu. A far cry from the spectacle playing out in America’s federal courts, the students’ extracurricular efforts signal a small return to homegrown stewardship. Should Hawaiʻi meet its goal of energy independence, these kids will be around, in the nights beyond 2045, taking stock of what it took to get there.

In April 2019, after this story had gone to print, Judge Crabtree ruled to uphold the Board of Land and Natural Resources’ original decision to allow Nā Pua Makani to proceed with its project. To learn more about ʻōpeʻapeʻa and ongoing efforts to protect them, visit opeapea.org.