LEHUA ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - After a small population of rats survived the state's controversial efforts to drop poison on Lehua Island, the Department of Land and Natural Resources has now hired a pair of four-legged specialists.
Two Border Terriers named Henry and Reese were deployed to the bird sanctuary last week.
"Terriers, in general, it's in their genetic makeup to hunt rodents. That is what they were bred for from hundreds of years ago," said Kyoko Johnson, one of the dogs' professional trainers.
The dogs, from Hawi on the Big Island, spent four days searching for rodents across the island's hot and rugged terrain.
Conservationists say the pair will provide a more targeted response to track down the few surviving rodents.
"Dogs are a really popular and effective tool in a lot of conservation projects for a variety of different means," said Mele Khalsa, an island restoration specialist with Island Conservation.
Since the poison drops, the land department says its teams have seen more albatross on Lehua Island than before, and says there have been no signs of rats attacking seabirds or eating native plants.
But motion-activated cameras have picked up at least seven rat images since last fall.
"We haven't seen rats everywhere on the island. We have just seen them in little pockets, so we are going to be surveying with the dogs in those areas and trying to assess how widespread the rat presence is," said Khalsa.
Henry and Reese spent months preparing for their deployment.
Their training included trips to the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve on Oahu... an environment similar to Lehua Island.
"Exposing them to the birds and desensitizing them. Getting them to ignore the birds so that we can more easily differentiate between their behavior when they find a rodent versus if they just notice a bird," said Johnson.
Land officials say the island's topography made the dogs' search difficult, requiring lots of rest stops and water breaks.
The pair showed interest in three different locations, and the potential rat burrows were marked and targeted.
Those who were critical of the initial poison drops say they appreciate this targeted effort, but feel better technology may be needed to support the dogs.
"I kind of like the idea of (DLNR) getting into drones so the drones can go in and look. Lehua has a lot of cliffs and it's steep so I don't know if the dogs will be able to go into some of the areas where the rats may be hiding in," said State Rep. Dee Morikawa, who represents Lehua Island.
The land department says plans are being made to send Henry and Reese back to Lehua Island for additional searches.