KAHULUI A very big and costly pest has placed state lands, Hawaiian home lands, public and private watersheds, golf courses, parks, ranches, farms and home gardens under siege.
However, it is an extremely cute creature to many. A delicacy to some. And a potential lawsuit to others.
It's the spotted axis deer. And don't even ask for an accurate population estimate for Maui County; the experts' answers are mostly anecdotal. However, they agree that the introduced animal's numbers are spiraling out of control, as axis deer populations have grown for more than a decade across Hawaii. Something needs to be done, the experts said.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
There are half a dozen deer in this photograph taken in Wailea, but as many as 100 at a time have been observed on the golf course.
That's because these days, the deer's most common predator appears to be a car's grill.
While hunting education classes are booked five months in advance, in general, fewer people hunt today than a generation ago. And rather than lamming it within Maui's tremendous swaths of public forest, the animals are increasingly finding refuge in town parks and suburbia - where gunplay could land hunters behind bars. In addition, some residents even feed axis deer as pets and harbor the graceful creatures on spacious "gentleman's farms."
Axis deer prefer to be at lower altitudes in South Maui's dryland forests. But in the summertime and during the ongoing drought, increasing numbers of deer leave the forest in search of water, green grass and low-lying plants, the experts said.
Just like other states across the union, Hawaii has made efforts to increase the number of hunters to deal with exploding deer populations, such as offering popular hunter education classes, no bag limits, a year-round hunting season and cheap licenses.
Killing deer to reduce population remains a touchy subject on Maui as well, said land managers, farmers and ranchers. Those interviewed rarely said "kill" or "hunt" and instead used words such as "control," "cull," "harvest" or "remove."
Technically, axis deer are considered an invasive species. However, they were introduced in 1960 by a mandate from the Hawaii Legislature to promote wild game hunting. Several wildlife biologists said the deer were part of the bad old days' policies when either the state or private individuals used to ship in plants, animals, birds and insects - most of which, like the mongoose, had no natural predators - without considering the long-term consequences.
Axis deer originate from India and are also known as cheetal deer for their white spots.
The deer's meat is tasty, too, hunters said. It's lean (reportedly the leanest meat of any mammal), low in cholesterol and doesn't have the gamey taste often associated with white-tailed deer, which is the breed most common to much of the Mainland. The unique U-shaped antlers, or racks, are also desired by trophy collectors.
Jeffrey DeRego, Maui Hunters and Sportsman Club president, said one of the largest obstacles to controlling the deer population - as well those of feral pigs and goats - is America's litigious society. Rather than allow hunters onto their land to cull the herds for free, large landowners are warned by their insurance companies against allowing individuals onto their properties, he said.
However, hunting is a visitor attraction on Maui as well. The 1,000-acre Arrow One Ranch in Kula and Maui Hunting Safari offer "exclusive" hunting grounds for "free-range prey," according to the businesses' Web sites.
Alex Franco, manager of the 5,500-acre Kaupo Ranch on Haleakala, said the safari company leases the ranch's land for big-game hunters. He estimates that Kaupo Ranch has about 600 deer that compete with 2,100 head of cattle for prime grazing spots.
"We don't get called in for eradication programs at the ranches or golf courses, because they have their own hunters," DeRego said.
But that's still not enough to handle the problem, he said. DeRego noted that he took his car to the repair shop recently and saw five cars in the lot that had been dented by collisions with deer.
Meanwhile, he said he knows of only two private hunters who bagged deer this year on Maui's public lands.
State wildlife biologist Shane De Mattos said axis deer have not significantly impacted native forests so far, although the potential is there. Still, deer have devoured some wild taro patches on Molokai, which were replaced by California scrub brush.
Most forest reserves, he said, are not ideal habitat for axis deer, since the public lands typically contain rain forests or are located at high-and-dry elevations.
"There are slim to none on public lands," De Mattos said. "Axis deer would rather bask in the sun and eat grass and kiawe beans.
"We encourage all private land owners to allow hunting on their property. We have said we are willing to work with them for a public solution to the legal issues, but we've had no buyers."
However, the state has never encountered a private land-owner who won't permit hunting on land because of personal anti-hunting beliefs, De Mattos added.
Wailea Old Blue Course Golf Club superintendent Steve Olsen said he's seen herds as large as 100 on a course surrounded by homes, shopping and roads. The deer are an expensive nuisance to golf courses, damaging trees, devouring ground cover and putting deep divots into greens with their hooves.
"They've cost us thousands of dollars in labor alone," Olsen said. "And we have no way of controlling them as far as shooting goes with housing nearby.
"It's also a sensitive issue with some people," he said. "They are pretty, but there are just too many of them."
Warren Watanabe, president of the Maui Farm Bureau, said not only do the deer eat vegetables and flowers, particularly in Kula, but in the process they contaminate the food with E. coli bacteria. The deer have also cost Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. tens of thousands of dollars by munching on young sugar cane in the Central Maui fields. Watanabe said he's heard enough farmer complaints in recent months to set up a meeting with the state wildlife officials to put together a new deer control plan.
"There's gotta be a fix to this," Watanabe said. "I'm not even sure how we put a dollar figure on what this is costing us."
Gerry Ross and Janet Simpson, owners of Kupa'a Farms in Kula, battled deer and won a decade ago, "knock on wood," Simpson said. In one night, deer did $20,000 in damage to their corn crop and fences.
"There are people who don't think the deer should be hunted, but this is our livelihood," Simpson said.
Human lives are at risk as well, as deer continue to collide with motorists on Maui's roadways, said Maui Police Department Sgt. Barry Aoki, who supervises the Traffic Division. No one has died in a deer-car crash - yet, he said.
But collisions continue to increase, Aoki said, although actual numbers were not readily available.
Mark White, director of the Hawaii Nature Conservancy, which manages about 6,500 acres on Maui, said of deer: "For some, they're a resource. For others, they're a problem."
For instance, the Maui Humane Society's national organization has taken a formal position, which the local group informally agrees with, against shooting deer and other game from helicopters, said Maui Humane Society CEO Jocelyn Bouchard. Helicopter hunting leaves too much room for error or wounded animals that suffer, she said.
"Obviously, this is a difficult and very sensitive issue," Bouchard said. "We have members who do not want to see any deer killed. But I think as a board, we understand this is an environmental issue, and that overpopulation can lead to all sorts of problems for the deer, like starvation or collisions with cars."
If hunting must be done, the Maui Humane Society asks that hunts be conducted as efficiently as possible to cull the herds and that deer not be slaughtered just for food or trophies, she said.
White also said conservancy officials don't track numbers of axis deer, "but we do know that the problem is increasing, and we see them in new places never recorded before."
Maui land managers said deer have spread to Maui's west side and have become emboldened enough to stand along highways in the daylight, something deer didn't do 10 years ago. The nonprofit Nature Conservancy, however, did remove deer on its land and then built a fence that's holding up.
"Still, it's just a question of time before they expand into the watershed and consume all the emerging plants on the ground, which are tender and young," White said.
Haleakala National Park spokesman Dominic Cardea said rangers have had success in keeping axis deer out of the county's largest protected parkland. Since 1979, Haleakala rangers have overseen the installation of 30 miles of 4-foot-tall stainless steel fencing, which is regularly inspected for gaps and holes, Cardea said.
Axis deer are not in the national park, "but it's a serious concern of ours," he said. "Our partners who own land surrounding the park are the ones dealing with the problem for now. They're at the front lines."
Cardea said that a new federal law will allow the National Park Service to provide financial and strategic assistance to the organizations that cull deer on park borders. The real sentries are the nonprofits, leeward Haleakala and East Maui watershed partnerships, which combine to protect more than 140,000 acres of native forest surrounding Haleakala National Park. The East Maui watershed group's lands encompass the Haleakala, Kaupo, Kaonoulu, Ulupalakua and Erehwon ranches, and Maui County is another major player with deer-control programs.
Franco said that Haleakala and Ulupalakua ranches in particular have become inadvertent havens for dozens of axis deer herds.
What's at stake? Thousands of hours and millions of dollars devoted over the years to restoring the native forests and plants destroyed by roads, lumber barons, ranchers, developers and pests, such as axis deer.
"We plan to give them support soon," Cardea said of the nascent efforts to "remove" deer, goats and pigs. "They are browsers, so any of the plants on the ground, that's their ice cream. And just like the goats and pigs, the deer create trails, which lead to erosion during rainstorms."
Because of Haleakala National Park's remoteness and altitude, up to more than 10,000 feet, chasing after deer if and when they get in the park would be "such a pain in the butt," Cardea said.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.