While Maui County and state officials scramble to eradicate the little fire ant from the island, the Maui Axis Deer Working Group is continuing to fight axis deer after establishing more accurate population estimates.
The white-spotted animal, which was introduced to the Valley Isle in 1959, has terrorized residents for the past two decades; since 2011, axis deer have caused more than $1 million in damage to the island's farms, ranches and resorts.
Population estimates ranged from a couple thousand to tens of thousands.
Wailuku resident Roy Sabado went to the Maui Marketplace to pay his Verizon cellphone bill when he came across this young axis deer in the back seat of a car in the parking lot. He said the woman who was driving the car said she lived in Kula, was keeping the male deer temporarily as a pet and was planning to release it when it gets older. “It was so calm it came to me and licked my hand,” he said. The unusual sight of a deer passenger in a car attracted a crowd of other people. Some snapped pictures, Sabado said. Axis deer are an invasive species that wreak havoc with farmers’ crops and damage golf course greens and fairways.
ROY SABADO photo
In September, however, the working group sought to further define population numbers and spent about 20 hours in a helicopter surveying 125,000 acres of East Maui lands - the most heavily affected area.
"It's still preliminary but . . . we're looking at about 8,000 deer," program coordinator Kanalu Sproat said of the area on Sunday. "We surveyed everything from Kihei to Makena, Kula to Ulupalukua, Makawao and Kanaio to Kaupo. That's not islandwide, obviously, but it is the core of where the majority of the deer are."
Sproat, who joined the working group in May, is the only full-time member of the staff, which consists of farmers, ranchers, environmental officials and other stakeholders. He said that one of the group's biggest efforts will occur in March, when it plans to place radio collars on 20 female deer to monitor adult survival rates and reproduction rates.
The data from the collars will help build a growth model for the axis deer that, in turn, can be used to determine the number of deer that must be removed to reduce and control populations, Sproat said.
"I wanted to do it on a larger scale, but funding is limited," he said.
When not tracking axis deer populations, Sproat acts as the face of the working group and regularly meets with community members and landowners.
One of the main goals for the group is to develop an islandwide management plan that will determine tolerable levels of deer populations with residents.
The working group will send a survey to farmers, ranchers and random residents in a month and a half, once the University of Hawaii approves it, Sproat said. He said that the survey will ask questions such as "how many deer do you see in your neighborhood," "how would you manage the animal" and "what methods would be acceptable to you."
"When it comes to invasive species, they're everywhere," he said of the native Indian deer that also have been sighted on Lanai and Molokai and in parts of Central, South and West Maui. "I think it's probably unrealistic to eradicate the deer."
Besides, Sproat said that the deer have become somewhat "culturally important" and that "most (residents) want them controlled," not eliminated.
Hunters have flourished with the proliferation of axis deer on the island, and officials with the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative have hinted at starting a venison industry with commercialized hunts.
Elena Rubino, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, has focused her thesis on the potential industry on Maui and is asking residents to complete a 10- to 15-minute survey on whether they would be interested in buying axis deer meat.
Rubino has been working with Sproat and the working group to determine if there is a possible break-even point for hiring a meat processor for harvested deer.
"I'm trying to get the potential demand," she said of the meat, judged to be the best exotic game meat by the Exotic Wildlife Association. "Is anyone going to buy the meat? If not, then I'm not going to get too far."
Rubino would like at least 200 residents to participate in the survey and to finish collecting the data by February.
Her survey can be found at delaware.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_bIdWYXccJkno16Z.
State laws and the U.S. Department of Agriculture may prevent the industry from ever starting, though, as a USDA inspector must be present during hunts and when the deer is brought to a slaughterhouse. There are no inspectors based on Maui.
"There's a lot of obstacles," Sproat said. "The main one is the USDA inspector. . . . If there isn't some way to work around that or reduce that cost, I can't see it working and being superefficient."
Sproat is still hopeful that the industry could be started on the island, especially when the axis deer are threatening "our local food security."
"If they're affecting the ranches and farms that bad, where are we going to get our food from?" he said. "We're going to have to rely on food from the Mainland, and I know a lot of Maui people want to support local (producers).
"Deer are definitely a threat to that, and that's one of the main reasons why the working group got together."
The working group is in the process of creating a website centered around axis deer and their impact on Maui's ecosystem and residents. Information on reported hunts and harvestings, as well as how to prevent encounters and mitigating damages also will be included, Sproat said.
For more information on the venison industry survey, contact Rubino at (908) 451-7228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.