Paintball guns the latest weapon against invasive plant species

Published: Jul. 20, 2013 at 8:42 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 20, 2013 at 11:29 PM HST
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KULA, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - The newest weapon for scientists in the fight against an invasive plant in Hawaii is already familiar, at least to those who use it for fun.

Researchers call it "Herbicide Ballistic Technology," or HBT. It looks a lot like a paintball game, but it's not a game, and the gun isn't shooting paintballs. It's shooting little balls containing herbicide.

The technology was developed in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Hawaii. "The process and manufacturing of these herbicide capsules is identical to the processing of the paintballs used in recreation," said Dr. James Leary, an assistant specialist for Invasive Plant Species Management in the department, in a video made during training in 2008. "But instead of targeting people in recreation, we're targeting incipient weeds in these natural areas."

The weed in question is miconia, a plant that has infested much of the Big Island and has been trying to gain a foothold on Oahu, Maui and Kauai. Miconia's large leaves can block out sunlight for smaller plants, and its shallow root systems can increase erosion. A single miconia plant can produce eight million seeds a year.

"Miconia is the number one weed problem in the state of Hawaii that most people don't know about because it's impacting areas that people don't have access to," Leary told Hawaii News Now in an interview from the UH Maui Agricultural Center in Kula.

It's also the reason why HBT was developed, according to Leary. Scientists with the guns are taken up in helicopters, allowing them to accurately and surgically target specific miconia plants in hard to access places while using a minimal amount of herbicide.

The technology has gained approval from the state Department of Agriculture and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and can be used only in Hawaii. Official use began last year after six years of training and testing, and has already proven successful on miconia invasions in the watershed habitat of East Maui.

"We have protected over three thousand acres, eliminating five thousand miconia targets, and reducing what we call incipient populations, or satellite populations, by 80 percent," he said.

While it is utilized for a serious purpose, the paintball gun technology still looks like fun. "I get asked that all the time," said Leary. "The fun factor is an obvious one. It's helicopters and paintball guns. How can it not be fun?"

Leary said other states and countries have already been in contact to determine if HBT can be used to fight invasive plants in their areas. He said that HBT will be used to combat miconia infestations in Maui, Kauai and Oahu in the coming months.

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