Progress seen in control of axis deer

At least 2,500 axis deer were removed from Maui last year, according to the Maui Axis Deer Working Group, which has nearly completed a database to track future removals, an official said.

The group killed an estimated 1,700 deer by hunting on a few properties last year, program coordinator Kanalu Sproat said. Another 875 deer were reported to have been removed on different properties through hunting by another group, the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative.

Sproat indicated that the number of deer removed likely is higher than 2,500. His hunting totals do not include deer removed with animal damage permits, a state-approved method that focuses more on “removing nuisance animals that are damaging your property,” Sproat said. For example, permits are given for shooting deer at night using a spotlight, rather than during the day when they are more active.

“That puts the number up to around 2,500 and that does not include animal damage permits, so I think it’s promising,” he said. “I think there’s still more that needs to be done, but it’s encouraging that there are people out there who are working to get this done.”

Recently, the group has been gathering permits and approvals from agencies and groups, such as the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Invasive Species Council, as well as right-of-entry agreements with landowners to give the group access to thousands of acres on Maui.

Sproat said that the county Office of Economic Development is reviewing a request for the release of $25,000, which was awarded last year for wildlife management by helicopter. The aerial effort, approved by UH’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, involves one shooter and a pilot flying over properties, firing nets on female deer and attaching radio collars to their necks to track them, Sproat said.

“The main reason is to get survival rates of female deer and ask, ‘Is the population going up or going down?’ ” he said. “How long are they living and how many offspring are they having?”

The process of attaching the collars takes less than 15 minutes after capture, and no drugs are administered to the deer, Sproat said. The shooter takes a photo of the deer to confirm the collar and locates it with the Global Positioning System.

Operations will be done 30 minutes before and after sunrise when the air temperature is slightly cooler to lower stress levels in captured deer. Sproat said he hopes to launch the two- to three-day project by the end of the month.

“We’re waiting . . . but we’re right there,” he said.

Another effort the group is waiting on is a database to display information on deer removed from areas on Maui, going back 2 to three years. The project is 75 percent complete, Sproat said.

“There are a lot of people and organizations that have been responding and reporting removals to the state, but we haven’t been good at” compiling it into one database for the island, he said. “I’m not trying to say what we’re doing is enough, but I think with the database at least we can know how much more needs to be done.”

Late last year, the group estimated that there are about 7,500 axis deer – primarily in the Upcountry and South Maui areas. The estimates were made after 20 hours of helicopter flight surveys. The group has requested $43,000 from the county this year to help pay for another flight survey, which is one of the “most accurate and most widespread” methods of calculating overall deer population numbers, Sproat said.

“Tracking population is not a one-time thing,” he said. “To get accurate numbers, it’s at least a three-year process . . . and maybe every other year after that.”

At about $1,000 per hour of flight, the survey makes up a large portion of their budget. The group still has funds to pursue other projects, such as a public survey and management plan.

The group plans to send about 2,000 surveys to randomly selected residents at the beginning of September. The survey primarily will ask residents about acceptable axis deer management techniques and tolerable population numbers.

Information from the survey will help the group finalize its general management plan for the Maui axis deer population. Sproat said that the plan still

is in draft form and does not include details on how to remove deer.

“Aerial removal is going to be the most effective and cost efficient, but it’s also the most controversial,” he said of the method that involves shooting deer from a helicopter. “The main reason people don’t like it is because people think it is a waste and that you’re going out there and just shooting a bunch of deer. There’s also a safety concern, and it takes away from the sport of hunting.”

While Sproat has been the go-between and leader for these projects since he was hired full time last year by the group, he is stepping down in June after accepting a job on the Big Island.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” he said. “But I hope to be involved as much as possible to help the new coordinator and keep the project going strong.”

For inquiries on the program coordinator position with the Maui Axis Deer Working Group, call Sproat at 495-5539.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at