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Axis Deer Threat on Maui Brings Perspective to Big Island

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   May 27th, 2011 · 3 Disqus Comments · Featured, Maui News

By Wendy Osher

Axis deer, courtesy photo Nature Conservancy and DLNR.

The state has confirmed the presence of axis deer on parts of the Big Island, a discovery that authorities say poses grave implications to native Hawaiian ecosystems.

Axis deer were first introduced to Moloka‘i and O‘ahu in 1868, Lana‘i in 1920, and Maui in 1959. They were never historically introduced to the island of Hawai‘i, but their newly confirmed presence, experts say, poses a threat to the environmental character of the island.

Axis deer have already caused extensive problems for the agricultural industry in Maui County. The Maui axis deer population has grown six fold over the past 10 years to over 12,000 animals today.

State officials say deer populations have become established in places where they cannot be safely or easily hunted or controlled. On Maui, authorities have seen deer populations move into farmed and urban areas, grazing in herds of hundreds, and causing millions of dollars in damage to farm lands.

The recent sightings on the Big Island were confirmed in Kohala, Ka’u, Kona, and Mauna Kea by crews from the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and a coalition of resource managers on the island.

Deer at Makawao, photo by Forest and Kim Starr, used by permission.

“We take all of these reports very seriously since there are a number of mammal species present on neighboring islands that could do serious damage to agricultural industry on this island,” said Jan Schipper, program manager with the Big Island Invasive Species Committee (BIISC).

“Ranchers and farmers have already expressed their concerns to me that deer and other species that are suspected to have been illicitly introduced on the Big Island would destroy their crops and possibly introduce new diseases to our island, as has happened on other islands,” he said.

The BIISC is now working with trackers and using game cameras to survey and confirm locations of axis deer across the island. DLNR crews are also expanding surveys and developing a response and removal plan.

Here on Maui, an Axis Deer Working Group was formed between the Maui Invasive Species Committee and the Maui County Farm Bureau. “Based on our own experiences,” said Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, “we would urge Big Island authorities to act swiftly to eradicate this pest, which has the ability to multiply very quickly, and impact vast areas.”

“We consider this a serious problem with far-reaching economic and environmental impacts to the agriculture industry and native ecosystems on the island,” said William J. Aila, DLNR Chairperson.

Pineapple eaten by deer, photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy and DLNR.

Besides agriculture and public safety concerns, conservation agencies are also concerned about the impact to forest and native ecosystems and threatened and endangered species. The existing fences on the Big Island below the 8 foot height needed to keep deer out. State officials say the retrofit of more than 300 miles of fences could cost tens of millions of dollars.

On Maui, the axis deer population compounded the island’s drought problems. “Axis deer definitely compete with livestock for forage, particularly under drought conditions,” said J. Scott Meidell, Vice President and General Manager of Haleakala Ranch Company.

Meidell said the forage tanked in July/August, earlier than expected, as the combination of drought and deer kicked in. “The concentrated damage of deer under those conditions rendered our drought plan useless and caused us significant losses from supplemental feed, destocking, death and premature sales,” said Meidell.

Axis deer, authorities say, can not only cause agricultural losses but can also debark trees, which frequently result in the death of a tree. An estimated 6 productive acres were lost at Tedeschi Vineyards on Maui when deer reportedly ate the crop.

Grape vine eaten by deer, photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy.

“It is really difficult to put a dollar amount on it since our end product is value added, but we lost about 6 tons of grapes for production which would have amounted to wine revenue of approximately $150,000,” said Paula J. Hegele, President of Tedeschi Vineyards, Ltd.

Authorities at the Maui vineyard plan to put deer fencing around the entire 23 acre property to prevent future losses to next year’s crop.

“Many farmers cannot undertake the high cost of entirely fencing their property to keep out herds of deer, and may literally lose a crop overnight,” said Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa.

“DLNR’s mission is to preserve and protect our natural resources, paramount of which are our watersheds and native ecosystems. We will need to take quick and effective action to prevent costly and destructive impacts on the Big Island that will last for generations, perhaps forever,” said Aila.

Big Island residents, meantime, are being asked to report any sightings of deer or any other unusual new or introduced mammal the the BIISC Hotline at (808) 961-3299.

*** Supporting information courtesy State of Hawaii, Division of Land and Natural Resources.

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  • B. Lokahi Sylva

    If indeed the numbers of deer on Maui alone are in any way congruent with the Initial Findings document of the MADG produced in 2002, the numbers quoted in more than one newspaper in the last week or so are much lower than the actual population. Without going into detail of the formula used to estimate population increase, there is assuredly a one-third (or more) increase in the number of deer every year. When I met Steve Anderson, who was here to do his thesis for his PHD on Axis deer on Maui, He estimated that there was between 9 and 14 thousand deer on Maui. If you do the math, and factor in the increased number of deer taken by hunters (many of whom are unlicensed kids with rimfire rifles)… we have today more like somewhere between 75 and 100 THOUSAND deer on Maui. It’s illusory because we don’t see them except for here and there when they cross the road at night. They’re nocturnal and they can travel ten miles and back in a night just to feed, when times are tough and the land gets dry. In conclusion, we need more deer crossing signs on the roads.

  • drdale

    Where hunters are allowed access the populations are well under control. There is a conflict between hunters and ranchers and environmentalists. No one group is all right or wrong. If the government really wanted to eliminate deer from Maui or Molokai, or Lanai they would allow year round hunting with no limits. But they don’t. Why? Because there are a lot of people that want to supplement their food supply and also there are a lot of ranchers that make money from guided hunts. The environmental aspects certainly are not a factor with ranchers since their land clearing and livestock have devastated the land already. I can understand that ranchers don’t want hunters on their land but they need to realize that it might be a good option. They must realize the government isn’t going to solve their problem.

    • sylviculture

      its not that ranchers dont care about the environment in fact thousands of acres of ranch lands on maui have been devoted to watershed purposes as well as the thousands of koas that ranches have planted over the years and participation with the state to fence off what used to be grazing land to preserve native species and provide a safe place for endangered species outcroppings, many people think ranches have endless amounts of money but most ranches barely squeeze by and so the employees arent paid very much and part of their pay is access to hunting on ranch lands so if everybody is allowed to hunt there it reduces the pay of the people who work hard and deserve it, the other factor is the liability to the private land owners, there are many cases where someone has been trespassing and sues the land owner because they got hurt due to their own actions, its not just as easy as opening the gate and letting everybody in, there are many aspects of this issue that most people don’t understand, i do agree something needs to be done about the deer though if it were up to me personally i would get rid of everyone of these non-native ungulates but its not that simple