It might be the best job ever. You go up in a helicopter, fly over some of the most beautiful and remote forests on Maui, hover within 100 feet of the green, then pick up a paintball gun loaded with herbicide and start blasting away at invasive species.
For the last two years, Dr. James Leary of the University of Hawaii has done exactly that. He says he’s gone out on 10 or so “missions” to take out “high value targets”–so far, just miconia plants, highly invasive plants from Central and South America that can form an umbrella over watersheds and kill off native species. He says the best “platform” for the gun–what he refers to as “herbicide ballistic technology” (HBT)–is the helicopter.
“It allows real-time target elimination during surveillance operations,” Leary said, talking more like an Navy SEAL sniper than a scientist. “It’s effectively cut our helicopter time in half. This technology comes from Hawaii and it really is made for Hawaii. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has reviewed it, but it only exists in Hawaii.”
The HBT is really quite simple: a paintball gun is loaded with herbicide instead of paint. Leary says his helicopter pilots (“some of the best in the world”) are so good they can hover over a cliff side or watershed within 100 feet of an invasive plant, which is within the gun’s effective range. Using the gun and helicopter allows Leary to “eliminate” the target plant without causing collateral damage to native plants growing nearby. Leary half-jokingly calls his missions “weedectomies.”
Military sniper talk aside, a remarkable three-minute gun-camera video Leary shared of a recent mission has all the hallmarks of old Vietnam war footage (minus the napalming of people, of course): emerald green jungle growth, the lazy spin of the helicopter blades’ shadows on the ground, even the clack-clack-clack-clack of the gun (you can watch the video here). But through it all, Leary is clearly precise, laying down herbicide nodules on individual plants.
“I appreciate people’s concerns about herbicides,” Leary said. “We’re trying to be as discreet, surgical, as we can.”
So far Leary’s only been shooting at miconia, but he’s been working closely with the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC), training new shooters, if you will, and wants to take on pampas grass next.
“It’s great,” said Teya Penniman, MISC’s manager. “You can use it in areas that are otherwise hard to reach. Penniman added that her group put Leary’s technology on display for state officials as part of the Hawaii Invasive Species Committee‘s first ever neighbor island meeting on Maui on May 8, though she laughingly refused to say how the officials performed in the test firings.
As for Leary, he freely admitted that his job is a lot of fun, but it’s also still a lot of work.
“We’re definitely flying into some of the most beautiful forests on Maui,” he said. “But the fun factor can work against us. We’re not out there shooting plants for the thrill of it.”
Photo: Josh Atwood