Axis deer on the Big Island: a threat to the land, the sea, and local livelihoods

Thursday, August 16th, 2012
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Big Island ranchers are concerned about the future. Not only do they have to deal with the volatility of fuel, grain, and cattle prices, but a new threat has appeared that adds to these concerns: the recent, illegal importation of axis deer from Maui County to Hawaii Island.

“It frightens me, already,” said Haia Auweloa, Ponoholo Ranch cowboy. “So many bad things have happened on Maui because of the axis deer.”

Having worked as a cowboy on both Maui and the Big Island, Auweloa calls upon personal experience to describe the threat that deer pose to the cattle industry.

“One time on Maui, we were saving paddocks for getting cattle ready for shipping to the mainland,” Auweloa said. “The deer came through and destroyed the pasture. We lost a lot of money that we were depending on. We struggled that year.”

Carolyn Wong, the Hawaii County resource conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, echoes her husband Auweloa’s concerns.

“You cannot control deer grazing,” Wong said. “They are in herds up to a thousand animals, and they take it straight down to the dirt.”

That bare ground becomes sediment that smothers coral reefs down slope. Molokai’s south slope is barren of vegetation because of damage from deer and goats, and as a result, “the reef is dying,” she said.

Ranch managers plan for the amount of pasture that is needed to sustainably support their cattle, Wong said. In places with axis deer, their grazing plans have had to change. They have to plan for the “extra mouths to feed,” she said.

“This means ranchers have to reduce their cattle numbers, and there is less profit,” she said “In the long run, ranching jobs are at risk.”

On Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui, they had to build eight-foot fences to keep the deer out, said Auweloa.

“Most people cannot afford to build fences like that, especially the small farmers,” said Wong.

“On Molokai, the deer are eating themselves right out of their habitat,” said Jake Muise, Big Island Invasive Species (BIISC) axis deer coordinator, and 12-year resident of the Friendly Isle.

The deer were introduced to Molokai nearly 150 years ago, and in that time, the population has peaked at about 40 to 50,ooo, he said. More than 7,000 deer a year are killed on Molokai, and that doesn’t have any effect on the population even on such a small island, he said. The only thing that will reduce the deer numbers is a lack of food, which is happening in some areas where the overpopulation of deer has destroyed their environment, Muise said.

In August last year, about 25 Big Island field staff members from BIISC, DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Kohala Watershed Partnership, and the Three Mountain Alliance watershed partnership attended an axis deer training for four days on Molokai. This intensive workshop on tracking and identification created an axis deer control team for Hawaii Island that can be called upon to certify deer presence and to track deer.

For two days last month, Muise organized a 17-person crew in North Kohala for ground surveys to find if deer were present in probable habitats, or where they had been sighted. The crew consisted of axis deer team members joined by Kohala community volunteers and covered a total of more than 6,000 acres of pasture on foot. They found no sign of deer, but “plenty of goat signs,” Muise said.

“We were looking for places where bucks rub on trees, hoof prints, as well as scat, which we would collect and send off for DNA verification,” said Muise.

Before they did the ground sweeps, Muise’s team flew over the pasture area in a helicopter equipped with a FLIR (forward-looking infra-red) camera. The FLIR can pick out a specific heat signature as small as a single mongoose, he said.

“We didn’t see any deer,” he said.

Muise is optimistic about the prospects of controlling deer in North Hawaii not only because of the apparent lack of established deer populations, but also because of the people he has worked with here. He feels that the support from landowners and stakeholders are fundamental to a successful control program.

“All the Kohala people I’ve talked to are really knowledgeable about why we need to keep deer out,” he said. “They have been 100 percent supportive, and great to work with.”

In addition to existing technology and community support, Muise is planning to pilot a new GPS/video collar that can be attached on a so-called “Judas” deer to deliver real-time location information along with imagery from the collar.

If a population is sighted or predicted in a certain area, a neutered deer with a collar can be delivered to the area. If other deer are sighted on the video feed, crews can be sent to the GPS location to control the herd.

The questions of where the Big Island axis deer were brought from, who brought them, and where they were released are still unanswered, but the intentions of the people involved seem clear to Auweloa.

“They were selfish,” Auweloa. “They didn’t care about our island and our natural resources —- they just wanted something new to hunt.”

“They weren’t thinking about the big picture,” Wong said. “When they talk about having enough game to hunt, and having a traditional lifestyle, they don’t realize that the deer are destroying our land, and also the reef. Hawaiians always fed ourselves from the sea, and we are going to need these ocean resources in the future. And for game, there are plenty pigs, sheep, and goats already here to hunt.”

Auweloa added, “I would like to ask those people: Is this beautiful, fragile mountain important to you? Is the ocean important to you?”

To the residents of Maui County, the special attraction of venison has worn off long ago, said Wong.

“All we need to do is make one phone call to Maui and there would be a cooler full of venison here the next day,” Auweloa said.

“If you really want venison, just call us,” said Wong.

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