WAILUKU - Maui's axis deer problem has become so bad that the introduced animals with no natural predators have eaten entire crops and cost some South Maui golf courses up to $10,000 annually for repairs to trampled grass, testifiers told the Maui County Council at Friday's regular meeting.
In one instance, a wayward shot from a poacher even found its way into the room of an unidentified resort, said Carol Reimann, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association.
The subject of the unabated deer population - which has become a problem across the state - was brought up in a resolution by Council Member Mike White urging the state and federal governments to get involved and help reduce the out-of-control axis deer population. White said the measures may seem cruel to some, but the animals also present a danger to motorists, threaten the public health by fouling watersheds and encourage poachers to trespass on private land.
Council Member Gladys Baisa
Council Member Elle Cochran
Council Member Mike Victorino
Council Member Mike White
The deer present a health threat as well because of the feces and urine left behind by herds, Reimann said.
And on the same day of the meeting, according to police records, two incidents in which poachers fired their rifles on South Maui resort property were reported.
The Maui Police Department does not readily have available the number of deer-car collisions. But Reimann said the Wailea Resort Association told her there were 19 such incidents in the past year in Wailea alone.
There also have been incidents in which South Maui hotel staff members have discovered deer in pools, ponds and even in lobbies, which drew laughter from council members.
But with the land so dry, the deer, which were introduced as game in the mid-1900s, are eating much of the available grazing land for Maui's cattle. Ulupalakua Ranch had to ship off 450 head to Washington state because of a lack of healthy grass to feed them, Reimann said.
Council Members Mike Victorino and Elle Cochran said the axis deer problem is not just in South Maui. Herds also have been spotted in Central Maui and West Maui, they said.
Council members on Friday voted unanimously to support White writing a letter to urge the state "and relevant federal agencies to join with the County of Maui to develop a long-term management plan to reduce the axis deer population."
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources and Mayor Alan Arakawa appear to be a bit ahead of White. Department Deputy Director Guy Kaulukukui said he and the mayor met Friday to discuss the progress of a local working group designing a management plan for axis deer on Maui.
The group includes the Hotel & Lodging Association, Maui Farm Bureau, Wailea Community Association, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. and the Maui Invasive Species Committee, Reimann said. They have not yet set a deadline to complete their work, she said.
Once the plan is complete, Kaulukukui said the department will evaluate it, possibly add to it and do whatever it can to help implement the plan and reduce the deer population.
"This is a huge and growing problem," said Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce.
However, there are no firm estimates of the population's numbers, Reimann said, although it's assumed to be in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, on Maui now. One hotel groundskeeper spotted a herd with 500 head, by his count, she said.
"Unfortunately, each day we put this off it means a continuing growth in the deer population and more problems for our farmers and residents," White said.
Cochran stressed, though, that the council's support of deer culling should not be seen as "the green light for people to hunt anywhere, even on private property."
Council Member Gladys Baisa said she is a strong advocate of reducing deer numbers. But she said she also wanted to make sure that this is done safely and with official oversight.
Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter Vice President Lucienne de Naie said she was on a deer-control committee several years ago, but its efforts never amounted to any action. De Naie said she thought the answer to controlling the deer was restricting their access to water, giving them feed that would make the deer infertile and establishing more open-hunting grounds.
Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui Farm Bureau, emphasized that this is a management plan and not an "eradication plan."
"But this is a very serious issue for us farmers; it can make or break many of us," he said.
Reimann said Maui has an abundance of wildlife and not enough hunters.
Some of the people who worked on Maui's last deer management plan have noted that even in Mainland states with lots of hunters, hunting doesn't always make a dent in the population. The seasons are limited to certain times of the year, but a female can reproduce a few times each year.
However, unlike in some states, Hawaii has no bag limits and no deer hunting season. The problem, the experts said, is that deer are actually quite smart. When they are being hunted, the herd's instinct is to go to places where they will be safe, such as private golf courses or the backyards of homes.
An upside of all this deer hunting, testifiers said, is that the meat, hopefully, can be given to the Maui Food Bank, which a Food Bank representative called an excellent source of protein.
Or some of the venison could be packaged by an entrepreneur and shipped off as a delicacy, Victorino said. Take a bad situation, and turn it into jobs and a profit, he said.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.