Maui County has approved a grant for the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative to manage the growing problem of axis deer on Maui, where the animals feed on farmers' crops, munch on cattle pasture grass and sometimes get hit by vehicles.
Cooperative board President Michael Tavares met with county officials Wednesday afternoon to present the organization's goals and procedures for solving the mounting problem.
"This grant will help with insurance costs, which are insane," Tavares said. "By the end of the year, I would like it to be fully self-sufficient, but our goal is not to be for-profit but a community involvement."
A deer grazes in Wailea in this photo taken in September 2009. The county has released $37,500 to the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative, which hunts the invasive animal on private property to help control the deer population.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
The $37,500 grant, which was issued by the county Office of Economic Development in early October, was in response to a public outcry by local farmers, ranchers and landowners who have suffered property damages. However, the grant was put on hold because of county concerns about the group's internal disputes and a leadership change.
With the grant approved and the meeting a success, county Communications Director Rod Antone said that Mayor Alan Arakawa's office is eager to find a solution and hopes the grant may help the group.
Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen said that the grant aims to study the feasibility of a venison project on Maui. Primary concerns for the project are for safety and creating a methodology for hunts inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said.
"We really wanted to find a group that was eager to help because if it's successful, it will lead to a new industry," she said. "We're very excited."
The group will be required to report its progress and findings to the office at least once a month.
Since its inception, the organization has removed more than 90 deer from private properties Upcountry, Tavares said. The game management hunts are approved by each landowner, at no cost to them. The deer are given to friends and families.
When the group approaches a landowner, officials ask where and how frequently they have seen deer on their properties. The team, consisting of a spotter, a shooter and a safety officer, then surveys the property and establishes proper hunting procedures and weapon choice. They also inform neighbors of the time and date of the hunt.
Hunters strictly use .22 magnum rifles or bows, aiming for head shots only. Tavares said every hunt is recorded and evaluated, with information on locations, dates and times of all deer removed.
The group has conducted only one USDA hunt, in November. It is awaiting the department's review of the hunt and formal protocols for future ones.
County agricultural specialist Kenneth Yamamura and Tavares said that, to their knowledge, creating a venison program has never happened before in the state.
"We're looking to set up protocols with the USDA," said Tavares. "We would like to avoid the term trial by error, but we realize this has never happened before."
There are possible difficulties in terms of the transportation of the animal to a slaughterhouse, considering some of the hunts can start as early as 3 a.m., said Yamamura. If the deer is not transported within two to three hours and hung at the slaughterhouse, the animal will experience rigor mortis. One solution, he said, could be a refrigerated truck that could properly store the deer before it is transported.
"Ideally, we would like the hunt to take less than three hours because I don't think we have the budget for a refrigerated truck," he said.
USDA officials on Oahu must also be notified two weeks in advance and are required to be present throughout the process - from the hunt to the slaughterhouse, said Yamamura.
He said that he will formalize more data on the issue so he can push the state to place an official on Maui. Tavares said that he hopes to begin USDA-inspected hunts within the next two months.
In the meantime, Yamamura said that the county could upgrade the Ukumehame Firing Range with a bowhunting facility, in order to better train hunters and increase safety.
Tavares, a certified National Rifle Association instructor as well as a veteran special forces soldier with stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that training procedures are extremely rigorous. The group has only 15 certified and qualified hunters, with many candidates failing the elite-level marksman proficiency exams. Tavares said that the group practices every week at the firing range but more hands-on training and safety precautions, especially at night, would help.
The axis deer is a South Asian deer that was first introduced to Molokai in the 1860s, but it was not released on Maui until 1959. Since then, the white-spotted animal has flourished with numbers possibly in the tens of thousands.
While Oahu, Molokai and Lanai have been overrun by axis deer for years, state and federal officials on the Big Island discovered the animals presence only in 2011. The Big Island Invasive Species Committee promptly hired hunters to manage the deer population, before it spirals out of control.
Maui Invasive Species Committee Manager Teya Penniman said that no one really knows how many deer are on Maui, but she cited a scenario analysis on growth rates conducted by a member of a management plan seeking to control the population.
According to available information and previous population estimates, from 2002 to 2003, there were approximately 1,000 to 4,000 deer, she said. Growth rates were estimated to be about 20 to 30 percent, concluding that the population could be anywhere from 4,300 to 42,000 on the Valley Isle.
"It's definitely a serious problem," she said.
Penniman said that it is interesting how the population has boomed over the past decade, considering it was introduced a half a century ago.
"Different invasive species have different impacts; some happen very quickly and some take a long time before you see any changes," she said. "With a lot of invasive species, you hit a certain space in population development, where all of a sudden everyone is aware of it."
Penniman said that herd sizes are generally on the smaller side but reports of 500 to 1,000 deer in a single herd have occurred.
"If they get into somebody's pasture, it's like a lawnmower," she said. "The deer come through and munch it to the ground, which causes farmers to reduce their cattle (herd) size."
The problem has exacerbated farmers' concerns about the island's ongoing drought.
Ulupalakua Ranch President Sumner Erdman said that the drought has reached "biblical proportions."
In conjunction with the National Weather Service, the ranch has recorded rainfall since 1925. In the months of October through December, the median rainfall is 7.2 inches, said Erdman, and there have been only four instances where they have had less than 2 inches of rainfall.
In 2012, reported rainfall was 0.2 inches.
Yamamura, who has farmed for more than 30 years, said that he sympathizes with farmers and ranchers on how difficult times have become.
"I didn't have to deal with deer till the past three years," he said. "There's no way they're being compensated for their losses. For my entire farming career I've never been compensated. . . . I feel for the farmers and ranchers."
Yamamura conducted a survey of farmers and ranchers from 2010-11 and found that axis deer had caused damage that exceeded $1 million, a number he said could be greater because not all farmers have reported their losses.
Tavares, whose parents own a farm in Kula, said that he grew up hunting and would routinely help farmers pull weeds and place fencing lines.
"I've been an Upcountry boy my entire life," he said. "The farmers have had essentially no help whatsoever, and we're trying to help them any way we can."
For more information, call Tavares at 269-4625 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.