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Work of Maui Axis Deer Task Force a priority for new year

COUNCIL'S 3 MINUTES

Spiraling growth in the axis deer population and drought conditions have resulted in deer moving into rural and residential areas, where they destroy livestock feeding areas, cause environmental degradation and create safety risks.

Last January, Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation to increase funding and support from various government agencies to address the devastation caused by the uncontrolled numbers of axis deer.

In September, in partnership with Mayor Michael Victorino, I announced the formation of the Maui Axis Deer Task Force with representatives from the county, state and federal governments and the farming and ranching communities.

The task force’s purpose is to manage and control the axis deer problem while working to find additional funding and other resources.

Our task force continues to discuss short- and long-term mitigation efforts for the axis deer population. We have begun research to foster a better understanding of the myriad problems caused by deer overpopulation.

Perhaps most concerning is the detrimental impact axis deer are having on farmers and cattle ranchers.

At my Infrastructure and Transportation Committee meeting on Sept. 13, Kyle Caires of the University of Hawaii Maui College and the Maui County Farm Bureau provided expert analysis. He shared the story of a recent sorghum trial at Haleakala Research Station, managed by UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, in Pi’iholo.

The college planted sorghum — a widely cultivated grain for livestock — on a 3.7-acre field that produces a crop valued at $32,000. In three days, deer wiped out the entire crop.

Our ranchers and cattlemen contribute significantly to managing erosion and runoff and controlling invasive species by maintaining their pastures with stellar natural-resource management and planned grazing schedules. The impact of axis deer doesn’t only hurt our farmers and ranchers; it’s also causing an explosion of invasive species, directly and indirectly. This results in negative ecological impacts throughout the island, mauka to makai, including erosion and runoff that pose threats to our reefs.

At the urging of state and local legislators, the governor issued a second emergency proclamation on Nov. 9 to enable government agencies to provide emergency relief, engage in emergency management functions and implement deer management strategies. As stated by Ige, “the large number of axis deer in Maui County have devastated pasture forage and most vegetation already scarce due to drought conditions.”

I urge Ige to extend the emergency proclamation, which is set to expire on Friday.

Maui Police Department data shows an alarming increase in motor vehicle incidents involving axis deer. As of Dec. 17, there were 173 reported deer-related incidents in 2021, after 83 in 2020, 92 in 2019 and 66 in 2018.

Some experts say the numbers are even higher, but many people are embarrassed to report the incidents or feel it’s not necessary. However, reporting incidents, no matter how minor, is important for data collection and tracking.

Mitigation ideas have the potential for multiple benefits.

One idea often discussed is a potential food donation program from deer meat. There may be related opportunities to establish a pilot project to create composting facilities for deer renderings and green waste.

We are also exploring a proposal to reuse water from the Kihei Wastewater Reclamation Facility to irrigate large areas of open land that have been ravaged by the ongoing Upcountry drought. This could also help bring back foliage and native plants lost from both drought and deer grazing.

If viable, this idea could be hugely beneficial to ranchers and farmers and provide a productive way to reuse excess treated wastewater as the county continues to move away from injecting wastewater.

This could help prevent massive runoff during large rain events, similar to the Kona low storm we recently experienced, causing large amounts of sediment to wash into the ocean.

The task force is looking forward to a deer population survey, covering ‘Ulupalakua to Pa’ia , conducted by the Department of Housing and Human Concerns. This survey will provide key information to guide recommendations on manageable deer numbers and is projected to be complete this month.

With community safety and environmental protection our top priorities, the Maui Axis Deer Task Force will continue to work for solutions. For more information on axis deer encounters, please visit: mauicounty.us/sugimura/.

* Yuki Lei Sugimura is chair of the Infrastructure and Transportation Committee. She holds the council seat for the Upcountry residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.

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