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County seeks solutions for deer

Hunting on private land considered

Axis deer run within 20 yards of a Wailea house in December 2019. Officials are debating the best response to the overabundance of deer, which have caused damage to farms, ranches and other properties, a situation made worse by ongoing drought conditions. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Community members are considering how hunting on private land could help control the overpopulation of deer that has been damaging crops and causing traffic accidents in Maui County.

Wildlife experts and government officials gathered for a virtual meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the longtime issue that’s recently grown worse with parts of Maui County under drought conditions.

Maui County Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who holds the Upcountry residency seat and hosted the meeting, said she has been hearing from farmers and ranchers who report deer eating crops and doing damage in places such as the Kula Agricultural Park. The general public has been calling to complain more often as well, including Pukalani residents who’ve asked for help with deer in their yards.

Nearly 20 percent of about 150 residents, including hunters, farmers, ranchers and even students, raised the issue of hunters wanting to hunt on private land, said Sugimura, who sought public comment prior to the meeting.

John Medeiros, Maui wildlife manager with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said the department’s tactic is to use hunting to manage the population. He said they’ve discussed the issue with landowners in the past.

John Medeiros, Maui wildlife manager with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, speaks during a virtual meeting Wednesday evening on possible solutions for Maui County’s axis deer problem.

Lanai is one example of hunting on private lands. For more than 40 years, the state has had an agreement with the private landowner, which is now Pulama Lana’i, to lease 30,000 acres for its game management area. The state monitors and manages the deer population and has a system for hunting, Medeiros said.

But on Maui and Molokai there is no such system.

Medeiros said it boils down to working with private landowners who may be hesitant to allow hunting on their land because of liability issues. He said that the state could work with the landowner, deciding on the numbers of hunters allowed on the property and other details. 

If hunting is not effective in controlling the population, Medeiros said the state could discuss other options with the landowner.

“There is a lot of opportunity,” he said. 

The population and movement of axis deer, which collectively may number over 100,000 in Maui County, according to some experts, have been a problem for years but have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months as deer dying from starvation because of drought have appeared on roadways and private property. On Jan. 27, Gov. David Ige declared Maui County a disaster area to allow the state to provide funding and aid for impacted ranchers and farmers and to help control the deer population and remove carcasses.

State Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said that farmers and ranchers have seen the axis deer issue coming for years and that she has been working to address it, but efforts have died in the state Legislature.

DeCoite, who was also a panelist Wednesday night, said that in the last year or so there have been more than 100 accidents on Molokai involving axis deer. In some cases victims in the accidents had to be airlifted off island for treatment. 

In an effort to help, the state Department of Agriculture has launched a $200,000 emergency relief program allowing Maui and Molokai ranchers and farmers to apply for grants of up to $10,000 if they suffered losses due to deer. The deadline to apply is noon on March 8 at hands.ehawaii .gov/hands/opportunities/opportunity-details/19971. 

Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, encouraged eligible residents to apply and said Wednesday evening that the department would like to issue relief funds as early as the beginning of April. 

Shimabukuro-Geiser, who has a background in farming, said that $10,000 is not a lot, but “we are going to try everything we can with stakeholders with what resources we have available.” 

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said that the county recently put $1 million toward handling feral animals, with a little over $300,000 each for Maui, Molokai and Lanai to work on separate management plans and programs to reduce deer herds and utilize their meat. 

Sugimura said Thursday that the county has already been seeking out and reviewing grants.

Victorino also suggested mobile slaughter units to butcher the deer after they are hunted, and Sugimura said that many people have called for the government to ease restrictions on processing and/or selling venison.

Joshua Bell, a veterinarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that he fields many phone calls from folks seeking USDA inspection after they’ve shot a deer, but by then it’s too late.

The USDA needs to be involved with the entire process, including going on the hunt and making sure the animals are hunted cleanly and harvested humanely. The deer have to be brought to a facility that meets requirements including sanitary guidelines. 

He said a mobile slaughter unit is a good idea, since they can be cleaned easily and closed off to flies. They are also constructed to meet federal guidelines. 

The only drawback is that they are expensive, Bell said, estimating that it could cost $300,000 to $400,000 to bring the units to Hawaii. He added that there are a handful of mobile slaughter units in the state.

Sugimura said there will be another informational meeting on the topic, likely in March.

Wednesday’s meeting can be viewed on Sugimura’s council Facebook page. 

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

**This story contains a correction from its printed edition on Feb. 26.

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