Thursday, June 6, 2013

Maui Deer Gone Amok: Trouble in Paradise

This is the first in a series called Trouble in Paradise.

In recent years, the deer population has exploded on Maui. Deer on Maui? Really? I’ve heard deer stories on the mainland, about deer who wander into garden beds and eat all the tulips and rose bushes and vegetables, deer who eat all the young forest saplings leaving nothing but ferns everywhere. Bad, bad deer, who often can’t be hunted in residential communities.

Yes, Axis deer on Maui (hanging out near the beach at Makena!)

Maui doesn’t have a lot of tulips or rose bushes, but we do have a lot of deer wandering into farms and eating valuable crops or munching gardens at hotels and around houses. By the way, Maui farms tend to be small, 2-20 acres, smaller than most small mainland farms which are often 50+ acres. Also many hotels and resorts, part of the local food movement, have gardens. Our deer roam the island fairly easily, especially from high-up Kula and upcountry down to the beach area of Makena. I don’t know if there are deer in Lahaina or Ka’anapali, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Maui’s deer are an introduced species, not native to the Hawaiian Islands. Our Axis deer are generally smaller than mainland deer, with spots, and cute in a Bambi kind of way. They are sub-tropical deer, gone amok in paradise.

At the most recent Maui Farmers Union Potluck, Michael Tavares of the Maui Axis Deer Hunting Cooperative spoke about the burgeoning deer population on the island. Here is some food for thought:

The Axis deer population is estimated to be 60,000 deer, of which 90% are estimated to be does, and 90% of those female does are believed to be pregnant!  Michael estimates that this summer, the deer population could reach 100,000.

When there is drought, like we had in April, the deer get so hungry that they wander more into local farms and gardens, causing even more damage than they normally do. Summer time, especially in Kula and upcountry, can be very dry with extended drought conditions and water rationing.

The MADHC formed as aresponse to the deer population explosion. For the last three months they have conducted a pilot project to do controlled hunts of deer on private property, with a USDA inspector, kill the deer quickly, transport and refrigerate them, and butcher them in a food safe manner at a USDA approved slaughterhouse.

Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Co-op banner and a participating hunter at the Farmers Union meeting.
So far 280 deer have been killed and the pilot project has been a success. The county/state has approved the program, and local venison will become available to buy at Pukalani Superette in a few weeks. Actually, Maui venison was expected to be in stores last spring, a year ago, but there were some snags in the process.

Nothing is wasted: the meat is given to hunters and their families, also to approved low-income residents. The entrails are given to farmers to compost. If you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you’ll recall that animal parts can be composted safely and create rich, healthy compost. The hides are given to deer tanners.

Michael and other members of the MAHDC sat at a table during the meeting to answer questions and talk with local farmers and land owners. They have also been presenting at the Kula Community Association and other places.

For those concerned about animal welfare and animal rights and who might question deer hunting, consider the alternatives. For example, tagging and spaying/neutering deer would be outrageously expensive. Deer also eat other things besides local Maui produce, like indigenous native plants. Some land on Maui is protected with big fences, but open areas are grazed by deer, goats and trampled by feral pigs. Some areas can be protected, but how many private landowners are going to fence their entire acreage?

How can you help?

MADHC would love to have more access to hunt deer on private lands. Deer do not recognize land boundaries, so a herd of deer can keep moving. If you are a private landowner, please contact MADHC. If you’re a hunter, you can ask to join the MADHC. Keep in mind, MADHC has controlled kills, insurance, and a procedure in place. The deer are killed as cleanly and quickly as possible.

Contact info for MADHC.
I'm doing it this way so he won't get  on spam email lists.

Have there ever been this many deer on Maui?
According to Michael, no. It’s never been this bad.

Why are there so many deer now?
Michael cited multiple reasons, in his own words:

 1. Lack of public/private hunting lands. 15 years ago, there was a lot more land available to Maui's hunters. Hunting actually held a more positive stereotype. So more land owners were willing to allow people to hunt on their lands. And I won’t say the problem was managed but there were a lot less deer.

2. Lack of habitat.... Maui has been expanding at an alarming rate. We have new hotels being built, multiple subdivisions, a lot of ag land that is being converted to business use. When this happens the wildlife that lives in these areas is pushed into new areas.

3. Also Maui provides the ultimate safe haven for a deer there are no natural predators, they have a warm tropical eco system that provides ample amounts of food and water put these two things together and you have the perfect climate for these animals to breed.

How do you get these population statistics of 60,000? How is this being measured?
“The calculation of the deer population to this point has been mere speculation. There has been no "official" count yet. I base my numbers on the amount of animals I see. For example I was hunting last weekend on a farm on Omapio Road. Within the first 5 minutes of my hunt I ran into a herd of 100 deer. Another 45 minutes I ran in to a different herd of 50-60 and just at dusk at the far end of the property I watched a herd of 200-250 run over a hill and go into HC & S land. Now this is on a 50 acre property. That is a small property. When I was able to hunt in Makena I would routinely run into a different herd of 100-150 deer every hour. There were days that I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Also there are proven facts that 1 acre of land can sustain 6 to 7 deer.”

Are there any deer ticks here? Deer are often associated with Lyme disease.

“There are no known parasites on Maui's deer. There has been the rare occasion where we find purple spots on the liver but that has been 1 in every couple hundred we shoot. I’m not sure of the cause.”

Since the USDA is involved with the controlled hunts and meat processing, the venison available on Maui will be USDA certified and food-safe.

I couldn’t help also asking Michael, “280 deer in 3 months! That’s a lot of deer. Where do you put all that deer?” He responded with a grin, “I have a really BIG cooler. You’d be surprised.” I can imagine. 

This is the first part of a series, called Trouble in Paradise. Stay tuned for more. 


  1. Luckily they don't have the deer ticks - that can be a big problem - we have deer here, though not right near me in the city. However some of nearby towns have had problems with the increasing population as it interacts more with people. Last year a deer went through the windshield of a car, landed in the back seat where it thrashed around a bit before dying. Luckily the passenger and driver of the car weren't seriously hurt. There is a deer hunting season here, but some complain that it's mean to hunt them.

  2. I'm thrilled to hear that Maui venison will soon be available for sale. It's really good meat, essentially clean and organic, from free-roaming animals. It tastes wonderful and it's low in fat. It's a win-win!

  3. Mahalo Dan... I thought Colorado would be swarmed w/ deer, like other parts of the country, so it's good to hear that the population is in check. I'm always impressed by how smart Colorado folks seem to be, kind of forward thinking in many respects.

  4. Yes, it's free range and mahalo so much for commenting!

  5. Yikes, a deer going through a windshield. Scary. DH always says not to swerve, not to slow down if there's an animal crossing the road, because they have gauged how fast you are going and if you change direction or speed, that will confuse them, they will hesitate, and it's more likely to have accidents.

  6. I had never heard that before but it makes sense - sounds like good advice!


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