Maui County farmers, ranchers and other landowners have a new resource available when they want to humanely eliminate axis deer from their properties, county officials announced Wednesday.
The invasive species introduced as game in the 1950s has rapidly grown in numbers in recent years, while damaging Maui agriculture and sometimes colliding with motorists.
After a year and a half in the works, the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative has been organized to hunt deer on request for free - with the help of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors - said the co-op's project pilot coordinator, Phyllis Robinson.
"It's so exciting because not only are we taking care of an invasive animal, but we're also turning it into a usable resource," Robinson said. "And nothing will go to waste, from the hides, to parts used for dog food to entrails in composting."
The cooperative aims to recoup its costs by selling the meat at reasonable prices at local farmers markets, she said. The cooperative will share dividends with members, including landowners, if they join, Robinson said.
The co-op's land coordinator and lead trainer, Michael Tavares, wanted to emphasize that the group's top priorities are safety, humane kills and assisting ranchers and farmers overrun by the deer.
The axis deer hunting cooperative expects to attract about 20 registered hunters. The group also will assume liability for property owners by having its own insurance and the proper state Department of Land and Natural Resources permits, along with the USDA's help, Tavares said.
One estimate put the number of axis deer on Maui at roughly 60,000, but no one knows for sure how many there are now, Robinson said.
The herds have grown rapidly because the animals have no predators, except human hunters, many of whom have said they've been hampered by a lack of public hunting grounds on Maui.
"My goal is to provide the community a service and give the ranchers and farmers some help," Tavares said.
Axis deer not only eat grass meant for cattle and farmers' livelihoods but also collide with cars and motorcycles.
"These deer are a menace to our farmlands and ranches and cause about a million dollars in damage to crops and property every year," Mayor Alan Arakawa said in a news release. "The formation of MADHC is our first step towards controlling this invasive species and turning a pest into a resource."
Robinson acknowledged that the group is not a panacea to the axis deer overpopulation problem, but it is a step in the right direction. "This is just the beginning," she said.
County Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons, a member of the Maui Axis Deer Working Group with Robinson, said he expects the hunters to provide "a valuable, vital service in a professional manner, as one of many strategies."
About a half-dozen USDA inspectors will participate in the program. One inspector will examine the property ahead of time and must approve the hunting location and be on site during the kill, Robinson said.
But before a shot is ever taken, co-op members also will walk through the area both during the day and night and take special care to make certain they set up a safe shooting lane so as not to endanger anyone with a stray bullet, Robinson said. They'll also use motion-activated automatic night cameras to locate their prey ahead of time.
The hunting itself will occur at night. The hunters will be allowed to "shine" the deer or use flashlights, which usually freezes a deer, for the shot with a low-caliber .22 rifle or an arrow (each selected for safety reasons), Tavares and Robinson said. They also might use salt licks to attract the deer to the safest place.
A deer is supposed to feel no or almost no pain when killed with a head shot, Robinson said.
The mayor's Office of Economic Development funded the co-op's program with $37,500 to potentially start up a Maui venison industry in addition to making a dent in the deer population, said county Economic Development Coordinator Teena Rasmussen.
The deer will be butchered at a USDA-certified slaughterhouse and inspected before sale. The hunters and landowners will have an opportunity to bring home some venison, according to the co-op.
Robinson said she hopes to create a Maui axis deer brand, sell meat online and provide venison to local food shelves.
Rasmussen said the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Hawaii Invasive Species Committee recently earmarked another $75,000 to develop other possible solutions to Maui's axis deer problem.
"By all of these groups working together, we hope to make serious progress on reducing the number of axis deer over the next year," Rasmussen said.
Those interested in deer removal can contact the co-op at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 269-4625.
For more information about the group, contact Robinson at email@example.com or 874-1239. Or call Parsons at 270-8250.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.