The Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative, known for its rifle-hunting operations, has found a more cost-effective way to capture deer that could create a new market for meat.
However, reports of dangerous shootings and hunts may ruin the group's chances of creating a sustainable industry.
The new method involves an octagon-shaped corral about 20 feet long, 20 feet wide and 10 feet high. The contraption, which has a trough for food and water to attract the deer, is fitted with a sliding door that seals off about 15 to 16 deer at a time.
"It works really, really well," cooperative President Michael Tavares said. "We've just finished helping a woman Upcountry who had trouble with pigs and deer in her garden. We were able to capture all the deer and then her pigs started getting trapped too."
Tavares said that the group of volunteer hunters monitors the trap using field cameras for about two weeks - documenting the optimum times for capturing the most deer upon activation.
"The human smell is still lingering on it so the deer get really skittish and nervous," he said. "But after two weeks they'll start getting curious and start returning for the food and water.
"That's when we shut the corral on them."
Once the deer are captured, the group will arrange for a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector to examine the deer for any ailments and diseases. After the trapped deer are shot in the head, the inspector, who costs $80 an hour, and the group then have three hours to transport the animals to a slaughterhouse, or else they will undergo rigor mortis.
"With the traps, we're able to take out more deer at once," Tavares said. "We're still able to shoot one or two on small properties, but on large properties we're able to take half the herd at one time, and it's a lot safer too."
The group spent about 2 1/2 months building the three custom traps, which cost about $8,000 to $9,000 in materials and labor, Tavares said. The group has already patented one or two designs and aims to further improve its functionality.
Although the group is beginning to use the corrals and other smaller cages more frequently, the hunters are being blamed for unapproved hunts that have destroyed properties and terrified neighbors.
Two weeks ago, Olinda resident Pam Peterson said that a high-powered rifle was fired in the middle of the night near her house. She found a dead deer on her property the next morning.
"It was shot while I was gone, and the next morning I could see the hoofs sticking out of my fence," she said. "My cousin who lives with me said he heard two shots at 6 a.m. and another 10 minutes later. . . . The doe was just lying there dead."
Peterson claims the incidents happen weekly and have been particularly stressful for her cousin, who is a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I've had a stretch where I feel like I've been in a war zone," she said. "Last year, I was sitting in my studio working and my next-door neighbor was sitting on her patio, and we heard five shots that hit my tin roof."
Tavares denied the group's involvement in any of the alleged shootings and claims that hunters who were rejected from the group due to safety standards are the ones to blame.
"We're having people go out and say they're us," he said. "One gentleman caught a guy cutting his fence and destroying his coffee tree just to open up a shooting lane. It's incredible."
Before embarking on a hunt, the cooperative seeks approval from property owners and neighbors. After surveying the size of the property and the number of deer found on it, the group notifies the neighborhood of the time, date and place of the hunt.
"The main thing about us is safety," he said. "If we don't have a shot at an animal we don't take it. I mean, no deer is worth the safety of an individual.
"I found 32 deer in a small 2-acre property in Kula, but they were all in line with the house so I just let them go because there wasn't a safe shot. One stray bullet may kill somebody, or put a hole in somebody's roof."
Since its launch in October, Tavares estimates the cooperative has removed about 400 deer from various ranches and farms, including land owned by A&B Properties. The group hopes to hold its first USDA-inspected hunt since October in the next two to three weeks, he said.
"We got delayed a bit because it started raining, but the deer are coming back," he said.
The inspected hunts will allow the group to sell the deer meat to Maui stores and restaurants.
"We're hoping to be in Pukalani Superette and Spago at the Four Seasons," Tavares said.
Although no formal talks have been established with the Upcountry supermarket, owner Myles Nakashima said he is "open to the idea."
"I personally haven't heard anything about it, but I think it's a good idea," he said in a phone interview last week. "I've had smoked deer meat, and it's quite popular. I don't think it's just an Upcountry thing . . . and it's better than goat."
Spago, the Wailea restaurant owned by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, also looks to be a legitimate option for deer, considering that the executive chef is a hunter and group member himself.
"We hope it's just around the corner," said Cameron Lewark, a cooperative member, hunter and executive chef at Spago. "Once we get it running and approved by the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), I hope to run it periodically and feature it on the menu."
The award-winning chef has a history of cooking deer and grew up hunting the animal with his father.
"I used to experiment with the meat because it wasn't that expensive, so it's not like my mom spent money on a steak that I might burn," he said.
Lewark, who said during a phone interview last week that he was preparing for a hunt at Maui Nui Farms in Kula, plans to cycle through about 50 different recipes for venison - a stark contrast to his typical one to two specials during the holidays.
"I'll definitely be the first restaurant selling Maui axis deer," he said.
On Thursday, the cooperative met with the Olinda Community Association and representatives from the Maui Axis Deer Working Group to quell rumors of its involvement in the Upcountry shootings.
Peterson, a member of the association, presented a petition against the use of high-powered rifles near her neighborhood and asked for other solutions, such as contraception, to control the axis deer overpopulation.
"I'm a farmer and an animal lover so I come at it from both sides," she said. "I see many deer with their jaws shot off, but as a farmer I have 3 acres and I have to fence off every tree because they eat everything.
"I'd prefer they be completely gone because I'll continually see them suffering - it's not pleasant," she said.
County agricultural specialist Kenneth Yamamura, who is a member of the working group and communicates with Tavares, also attended the meeting and suggested that cooperative members have identification cards, or at least a group photo designating current members.
"There are people posing as members of this cooperative, and neighbors are filing reports with the Police Department," Yamamura said. "I told (Tavares) he needs to take a photo of their membership so the public knows who is in the group and who is not.
"This is happening on a weekly basis, and somebody has to investigate when they hear a shot," he said. "It's become a dangerous situation."
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.
* The cooperative also wanted to clarify that it accuses only the hunters who were rejected from their cooperative of destroying a property in Haiku. The cooperative has not hunted on A&B property, though it is in the process of scheduling its first hunt on those lands.