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Managing deer, sustainable food is mission of business

Maui Nui Venison to receive funding to help move processing on-island

An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 axis deer roam Maui, with the majority Upcountry. That number could likely grow to over 210,000 in the next 10 to 15 years without management practices, according to Maui Nui Venison, which aims to balance out the population while supporting a sustainable food system. MAUI NUI VENISON photos

Using innovative technology and mindful harvesting methods, Maui Nui Venison is on a mission to balance out the island’s invasive axis deer populations.

There’s an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 axis deer on Maui, with the majority Upcountry, and without “active management” efforts, that number could likely grow to over 210,000 in the next 10 to 15 years, CEO and co-founder Jake Muise said Tuesday.

With its focus on mitigating environmental issues associated with overpopulated deer herds and achieving sustainable food systems for the community, Maui Nui Venison was among the 19 companies selected to join Elemental Excelerator’s next cohort where they will receive funding to deploy their climate tech strategies.

“The solutions we’ve built have the capacity to manage axis deer on a large scale,” Muise said. “If we can work together to find balance, we’ll collectively be able to mitigate the environmental impacts of these animals, as well as increase resource availability for our communities all while respecting this incredible animal through stress-free harvesting methods.”

Elemental Excelerator, a Hawaii-based global nonprofit that designed the accelerator model for climate technologies, is marking 10 years of investing in startups that aim to address “real-world challenges” like net zero infrastructure, climate mitigation and greenhouse gases.

Jake and Ku‘ulani Muise are the founders of Maui Nui Venison

Drought and extreme weather patterns are increasing in frequency and intensity, the nonprofit said, which makes preserving the land, forests and marine ecosystems even more dire.

“Overpopulated axis deer herds can significantly decrease watershed functionality in our high elevation areas, directly compete with and severely impact our ranching and farming communities, are a hazard on our roadways and contribute to sediment deposit on our reefs,” Muise told The Maui News.

“On top of consuming both grasses and crops that ranchers and farmers rely on, axis deer can also completely denude large areas, causing excessive topsoil loss during large rain events.”

In addition, a specific concern within the hunting community is the possibility for overharvesting and not having resources available for the future.

As subsistence hunters themselves, Muise and the team hope to tackle those concerns by leveling out the deer population and making it a “net-positive” situation for everyone, though that goal is tens of thousands of deer away.

The companies, which were selected with input from more than 40 public and private stakeholders from Hawaii, will receive between $200,000 and $500,000 to implement and grow their mitigation technologies.

“We are excited and grateful for this invitation to continue learning what it means to build technologies and processes that are rooted in reciprocal relationships with ‘aina and community, relationships that might best inform climate change solutions,” Muise said. “Balancing Maui’s deer populations while unlocking a rich food source has always been central to our work.”

According to Elemental Excelerator, wild game produces just 25 percent of the emissions of beef cows and Maui County is helping to eliminate extra methane by targeting unsustainable deer populations.

Both the funding and opportunity from Elemental Excelerator will help Muise to transition the majority of the venison processing from the Mainland to on-island as well as build more channels for local venison consumption.

“Maritime shipping, especially frozen freight, requires excessive fossil fuels,” he said. “If we can both process locally and replace, in part, other proteins that are being shipped into Hawaii, the impact will be substantial.”

Since 2012, Elemental Excelerator has reached 136 companies, 12 of which are from Hawaii.

“What we know from working in Hawaii is that while technology has half the solution, the community brings the other half. If we invest with this knowledge, we will be able to decarbonize faster, center equitable solutions and be better investors,” said Dawn Lippert, Elemental founder and CEO. “Many companies in this year’s cohort have technologies that can transform business and industry in Hawaii — from shipping to food and agriculture to transportation — and we believe they will positively impact our state for years to come.”

All of the venison harvested by Maui Nui Venison is sourced from a field operation that actively manages deer populations using forward-looking infrared cameras, which makes detecting deer at night much more precise and creates a stress-free experience for the animal.

Maui Nui Venison also has a mobile 30-foot-long slaughter facility, which allows them to quickly slaughter, process, cool and store deer on the spot. The unit is U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved, and can be moved on a nightly basis.

Working in partnership with Upcountry farmers and ranchers, about 150 to 200 deer are harvested a week.

Using stress-free methods, Muise said, “we never bait, pen or trailer the animals,” and USDA staff are present for the entire harvesting process.

The forward-looking infrared technology also enables the team to record information for population surveys, which is made available to landowners and the community as a resource.

“The systems we’ve built over the last 10 years are a combination of highly accurate surveys along with innovative field-harvesting processes,” he added. “These systems create a complete management solution that allows us to fully utilize these animals through USDA certification and track our progress towards achieving balance.”

From April 2020 to April of this year, 3,577 deer were harvested, which would mitigate the growth of axis deer populations on Maui by nearly 15,000 over the next five years, according to Maui Nui Venison’s website. These efforts also equate to about 4.5 million pounds of dry feed salvaged for local ranch and farm lands.

In that same one-year span, 139,000 pounds of venison were wild-harvested (98 percent of the animal is used), with 42,000 pounds donated to food-insecure locations in the community; this is about 100,000 meals.

Over the next few months, the team will be completing a survey from Ulupalakua to Paia, which is being funded by the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Concerns.

“This data will be critical to balancing population growth in the years to come,” he said.

For more information about Maui Nui Venison, visit maui nuivenison.com.

For more on Elemental Excelerator, visit elementalexcelerator.com/.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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