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Funding, fencing on the horizon for farms, ranches hurt by axis deer

Applications opening this week for $30,000 grants to cover losses caused by deer

A herd of axis deer grazes in a pasture along Hanamu Road in Olinda in July. As growing populations of the animal continue to create problems Upcountry, funding will soon be available for ranchers and farmers to apply for, and plans are in the works to put in more fencing for places like the Kula Agricultural Park. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Solutions for feral ungulate control are slowly but surely taking shape as axis deer populations rapidly grow and create havoc for Maui County farmers and ranchers.

Funding will soon be available for local farmers and ranchers to apply for, and plans are in the works to put fencing around locations like the Kula Agricultural Park to help protect crops from foraging deer.

“The (Maui Axis Deer) task force has been working to manage and control the axis deer problem while working to find funding and additional resources to assist in addressing the issue,” Infrastructure and Transportation Committee Chairperson Yuki Lei Sugimura said Monday morning. “The task force has been working on short- and long-term mitigation efforts and conducted research to foster a better understanding of the myriad of problems caused by deer overpopulation.”

For the fiscal year 2023 budget, Mayor Michael Victorino made a $1.5 million budget amendment to help farmers and ranchers to cope with the impacts of axis deer, Sugimura said.

The $1.5 million will be facilitated by fiscal sponsor Lokahi Pacific, which will grant up to $30,000 per Maui County applicant until the money runs out.

“I am thrilled that we are here,” Sugimura said. “We can start doing the steps we need to mitigate and control the feral animal problem that’s going on here in Maui County.”

Grant money can be used to compensate for financial deficits caused by loss of feed for cattle, death of cattle, destruction of farms, reduced crop fields and other agricultural property damages caused directly by axis deer overpopulation since July 1, 2021, Lokahi Pacific Executive Director Susie Thieman said.

The grant can also be used to fund labor, fuel and equipment needed to restore the farmer’s or rancher’s operations.

Applicants must be a “food-producing” ranch or farm that is between 12 and 40 acres located on Maui, Molokai or Lanai. Thieman said she believes that this is the first time that farming properties of this size have been offered a county grant.

Equity will be ensured between the three islands and a portion of the grants will be prioritized for minority groups, such as native Hawaiians, as well as women.

“We have to have relief and recovery,” Thieman said.

Applications open Wednesday and the deadline to apply online or via mail is mid-August. Applications will be available on lokahipacific.com before 12 p.m. Wednesday, and Thieman recommends filing as soon as possible due to high demands for financial support.

“We know that from the number of phone calls we’ve gotten the first time the council had this on their agenda, we know that there are a lot of people out there waiting for it,” she said. “We’ve got a list of — I’m not even going to tell you how long it is — of emails and phone numbers that I’m supposed to call as soon as it’s available.”

Animal scientist and Maui County livestock extension agent Kyle Caires said Monday during the committee meeting that the situation relating to axis deer is “still really bad.”

With droughts becoming more and more frequent, and with another dry period coming in July, even well-managed pastures are being overturned by feral ungulates.

“While there are some green areas on the island, the pasture inventory is relatively low,” Caires said. “Ranchers have been resting pastures the best they can and the axis deer are getting in front of the cattle and basically benefiting from whatever rested forage is there.”

From an animal productivity angle, it’s getting “tougher and tougher” as ranchers are weaning their calves early to give their cows more time to bounce back, he said, which results in less value for the calves and more costs for supplemental feed to support the cattle’s health.

Public health is also a concern as vehicle accidents with deer on the roadway increase, according to the Maui Police Department, said Sugimura.

Potential contact with parasites and pathogens that deer can carry is also a health hazard for humans and cattle, Caires said.

“As these deer continue to proliferate in number, there are some far-reaching and indirect effects, ramifications, on human health as well as negative effects on agricultural industries,” said Caires, adding that he’s observed growing numbers in Haiku, Peahi, West Maui and Camp Maluhia.

The actual number of deer on island has been hard for local officials to peg down. One ungulate management company that surveyed more than 250,000 acres in Maui County estimated in 2020 that Maui has about 35,000 to 50,000 deer. Sugimura said that according to Jeff Bagshaw of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, there’s nearly 200,000 axis deer roaming Maui.

“He estimated that we need to cull or control about 20,000 a year just to keep the population where it is, so government has a big job in assisting with getting numbers down,” she said. “I really think we can get this done.”

Though a lot of efforts to manage feral ungulates have occurred at the county level, such as grazing management and pasture restoration, Caires said there needs to be a wildlife management plan at the state level that would designate responsibility, identify wildlife management areas, create best practices for processing deer for meat and for inspections, facilitate larger scale trapping and fencing and allow the DLNR and Department of Agriculture to enforce the rules.

“It becomes a lot simpler in terms of control,” he said. “It’s a very multifaceted problem and it will require a solution with even more facets, and at the end of the day, that means more jobs. Agriculture success can be counted on in the next decade or two, but all hands on deck are needed.”

Sugimura said a bill calling for a Hawaii-wide management plan and a state inspectors failed to get through the state House of Representatives during this year’s legislative session, but state and county officials plan to go back to the drawing board to reintroduce legislation.

State funding of $2.8 million has already been allocated to the Kula Agricultural Park project, as well as a new Upcountry Maui park, which is slated to begin construction in August once materials and supplies arrive, Sugimura said.

She said that the purpose of the project is to minimize the negative impacts of feral animals in the park by building a fence for both parks and developing a management plan over the next four to six months that addresses control methods specific to the needs in the area.

Collaborations between federal, state and county officials to build fencing have proven successful, she noted, including at Kahului Airport earlier this year.

“I recently ran into (Maui District Airports Manager) Marvin Moniz and he said, and I was surprised, but he said that they are continuing to try and control axis deer around the airport and they were able to control 500 of them,” Sugimura said. “I wanted to thank Marvin Moniz and that group that are continuing to try and control and mitigate the axis deer problem around the airport because as you can guess, if there were any disruptions with the airlines, that would be a big accident waiting to happen.

“This just emphasizes the need to get control over the axis deer problems.”

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

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