Public safety concern in plan to curb isle’s deer population


"The deer is widespread on Maui," Watanabe said. "We're all being hit."

Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, said that owners of small Upcountry farms, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., ranchers and even Wailea resorts have all suffered damage from the deer that chew up crops, compete with cattle for grass and trample golf courses.

"There is a lot of frustration," Watanabe said.

He added that a "big concern is public safety."

Just two weeks ago, Watanabe said an axis deer ran into his truck, causing $1,000 damage to his bumper.

Watanabe spoke at the council's first Neighbor Island meeting, in the Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center pool room in Pukalani. The council's membership includes Chairmen William Aila Jr., director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources; and Russell Kokubun, director of the state Department of Agriculture. Also serving on the panel are state legislators, other state officials and environmental experts.

Sen. J. Kalani English, who also participated on the council Tuesday, asked Watanabe and the group to keep tabs on the axis deer in Hana because he said the animals have been spreading through the southern part of East Maui, threatening Kipahulu and Hana.

"The people are very concerned about it," English said.

According to the DLNR's Division of Forestry and Wildlife Maui District Office, state surveys of parts of Maui found 4,000 to 5,000 deer in 2011. In the same year on Lanai, the estimated population was 3,500 to 4,000 in surveyed areas. There were no estimates available for Molokai.

But last year an official involved with the axis deer working group said that the population could be in the tens of thousands on Maui.

Group members said that the deer are more prevalent Upcountry, although they also have been seen in West and Central Maui areas.

Watanabe said that many farmers have put up fences to keep the deer out, but the fencing has added to farm costs. He added that the deer are a food safety issue because farmers cannot harvest crops exposed to deer droppings.

The drought is worsening the deer problem because the animals venture closer to places inhabited by people in a search for food and water, he said.

After the meeting, Watanabe said that the deer management plan is a "really rough draft," but the group is looking at using hunters in the long term to control the population as well as obtaining funding to help farmers put up fences and find other ways to help keep deer out of farmlands.

Another option would be to explore the use of repellents that would not harm people or the environment but would keep away the deer, he said.

"We are exploring all possible options," Watanabe said, adding that the group is not seeking to eradicate the deer.

Watanabe said he didn't know how much money the group would request from the council, but he added that the draft plan also would be submitted to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

In response to a question by a council member during the meeting, Lori Buchanan, field and outreach coordinator for the Molokai/Maui Invasive Species Committee, said Molokai, too, is overrun by axis deer.

But, on Molokai, hunting is a way of life and it would "be a waste to fund (a deer control program)," she said. "On Molokai, people fish and hunt for sustainability."

By: MELISSA TANJI staff writer, The Maui News