Island deer dilemma sparking new venison industry

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Nov 28 2013 12:46:00 AM HST

Maui County's solution to a very pricey nuisance could be on the verge of creating a whole new industry.

HONOLULU -

It's so bad, it's estimated to have done about a million dollars in damage on Maui alone.

It’s not a fire, nor a crash -- we’re talking about deer.

Click here to watch Lara Yamada's report.

In the 1800s, Axis deer were introduced to the islands as a gift from China to King Kamehameha the Fifth.

But in recent years, growing communities and hunting restrictions have turned that gift into a nightmare.

Now, there is a budding movement to turn the problem into profits.

“There’s one,” whispers hunter Dale Littlefield, scanning for Axis deer, as he drove near homes and golfing greens in Wailea on Maui.

Their eyes glinting in the green light, the late night drive reveals its stealthy residents temporarily shrouded by Kiawe trees.

They deer are pretty to look at, but:

“It's an epidemic. It really is,” said Mike Tavares, president of the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative.

But come out they will.

One tourist caught an entire herd crossing the road in broad daylight.

Cars and deer don't mix.

Wailea Resort recorded 19 collisions in 2012.

Not only has the resort has collected pictures of banged-up cars, but of deer involved in car collisions, dead in the middle of the road, or dying in nearby parks.

A popular You Tube video shows one deer, that dashed through a hotel lobby, scrambling out to sea, only to have swimmers escort the deer back to shore, before he passed out on the beach.

“There's an open field we hunt right above,” said Tavares, showing KITV reporter Lara Yamada a cabbage patch in the center of acres of ranch land.

Tavares says the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Co-Op is made up of all-volunteer hunters, who know well the damage done by Axis deer.

“Right there is the start of the cabbage and that's their favorite part,” he said, pointing to the tightly bunched middle of a head of cabbage.

“If they're walking through and munching on the edges, they're urinating too, and then that's it,” he said.

“So, the crop’s gone?” asks Yamada, looking at least an acre of cabbage, nearly ready for harvest.

“The crops gone,” said Tavares.

It’s not just cabbage: cane fields, grapevines, and pineapple crops are all being eaten and destroyed.

One picture shows deer busting through rock walls and destroying the greens on a golf course.

“We're trying to bridge the gap between hunting and landowners again,” he said.

That means strict hunting rules and promising “zero waste.”

“If you notice, each one of them is different,” said Tavares’ hunting partner and budding jewelry-maker Dale Littlefield, pointing to dozens of pendants, bracelets, and necklaces hanging on racks in his living room.

He said he and his wife are about to start marketing their wares, which are all handmade and all made out of Axis deer.

“When you do something like that, and you take an animal like that, you want to try and use every bit of it,” said Littlefield.

“What’s considered Maui style is to have five braids, five strands,” began Gretchen Cardoso, who makes saddles, chaps and scarf slides, in an effort to waste not.

“I think it would be a more positive thing to look at a problem as a potential resource,” she said -- including on the dinner table.

“I smoke it and process the meat myself. I mean it goes like wildfire,” said Littlefield, pulling out smoked sausage and meats from his refrigerator.

At his Kahului food truck “Maui Fresh Streatery,” Chef Kyle Kawakami was busy creating masterpieces and promising to add deer meat to his menu.

“I'm super excited to start working with it. I'm hoping it gets into the market soon,” he said.

The next day at Kumu Farms, he demonstrated a twist on a Hawaii favorite, a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich, but this time, using Axis deer meat.

And there's movement outside the kitchen too.

“The purpose of the event was to get people in the room beginning to talk about whether or not this industry makes sense,” said the University of Hawaii Maui College education specialist Phyllis Robinson.

In October, Robinson and the Kohala Center rounded up hunters, ranchers, and experts for the first ever Deer Symposium, to find common ground on population control and the potential venison industry.

There's also a new course next year, to train ranchers on making management plans.

“I think there is a feeling that we do have to do something about it,” she said.

“I’ve heard from a lot of upcountry residents who say all our freezers are full already, and yet we're still seeing so many deer,” said Robert Parsons, who is the environmental coordinator for Maui County.

He’s also part of the county’s Axis Deer Working Group, which is trying to get a grip on the problem.

Within a month, the group plans to have a more accurate count of deer in Maui County.

As of late 2013, numbers ranged wildly from 10,000 to 60,000.

The group is also creating different management plans for different sectors: near hotels, near houses, or on ranches, and in the next few months, residents can expect to see mail-out surveys and public sessions, asking people what they want.

“We really cannot let this go any longer, without addressing it with everything we have,” said Parsons.

They are part of a committed community, working on a problem that’s just not going away.

“We're all here to try and help the county of Maui. That's what we're here for. We all want to see it work,” said Littlefield.

This industry is so new, it's only been a couple of months since the first local venison from Molokai has been USDA-approved and accepted in island restaurants.

Prima in Kailua, Tango in Honolulu, and Salt in Kaimuki have offered a few selections.

Wholesalers told KITV several other restaurants are having taste-tests with customers.

The Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Co-Op has begun its own pilot project, and if successful, could launch the Valley Isle’s first wholesale market. 

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