Deer on Molokai are on pace to outnumber residents 10-to-one, taking up more and more space on the small island.
They are creeping up the valleys and remote ridges, endangering native plants and stripping vegetation. They are also coming into residential areas, and grazing through pasture land.
Many visitors have come to admire these free-range creatures. Others visit Molokai to hunt them.
The deer meanwhile have overwhelmed the 260-square-mile island, leading to multiple emergency proclamations. In an on-going battle to tame the deer in Maui County, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources is planning to retrofit decades-old fencing to keep them out of state forests to protect important watershed areas.
Officials say those fences are an effective deterrent to keep deer and other animals from eating vegetation that’s important to the ecosystem. But efforts to build more fencing this year may be stalled after Hawaii lawmakers removed funding for fencing projects from the state budget bill.
Hunters and community leaders have previously raised concerns with the fencing plan. Hunters are concerned about fences limiting the access to and supply of game meat, while community leaders fear it will force them back down into residential areas.
“It will literally just push the deer closer to town and around houses,” Sen. Lynn DeCoite of Molokai said. “They’re basically imposing axis deer on the communities.”
Axis deer were released on Molokai in 1868. Many came to the islands as a gift to King Kamehameha V. Axis deer are distinguished from other deer by their white spotted body and short tails. Conservative estimates put their current population around 60,000 on Molokai, according to a survey by Maui Nui Venison, with support from Maui County.
Hunting deer has become an extension of Hawaiian tradition, and the venison provides a vital source of protein for an island with only about 7,400 people and limited resources.
“The Native Hawaiians brought the pig because that was a resource for them to sustain themselves; there’s a cultural factor behind that,” said Godfrey Akaka, president of the Native Hawaiian Gathering Rights Association. “The axis deer was given to the king, and the king received it as a resource for the people.”
Axis deer populations increase about 20% to 30% each year, according to a study by Steven Hess, a wildlife biologist. Roughly 30% of the population, somewhere around 18,000 deer, would need to be culled annually just to keep the herds in check, the study found.
Hunting and other control efforts cull less than half of that quota, according to data from the DLNR.
Though deer are a protected resource they are also an invasive species.
State conservationists say that deer and other invasive species damage watershed areas when they eat plants necessary for new growth. The lack of vegetation reduces the forests’ ability to capture moisture from the clouds and carbon from the atmosphere. The erosion also leads to mud deposits, smothering coral reefs during rain events.
J.B. Friday, an extension forester at UH Manoa, said that deer also are wiping out pastures. He said that he visited a few on Molokai where the deer had eaten the grass down so badly that the pasture was overtaken by inedible weeds, leaving nothing for the cattle to graze.
“Deer are a huge pest for ranchers,” he said. “It can’t just be us conservation people worrying about them eating the rare plants; they wipe out farms and ranches, too.”
Due to an ongoing drought, the deer also are coming into residential areas, eating plants that aren’t fenced in, residents said. The state has increasingly turned to fencing as a tool to defend land against deer foraging.
The Case for Fencing
Fencing enables natural resource managers to restore an area with native plants and animals, without fear that they could be trampled or eaten by larger mammals.
There are about 111,000 acres of forests already fenced in Maui County, or about 17% of the islands’ forests. Stretches of fence were initially built to keep pigs and goats out, but deer are able to easily jump over them, said Emma Yuen, Division of Forestry Native Ecosystems program manager.
The state’s natural resource agency plans to raise Molokai’s 4-foot-high fences to 8 feet, using a mix of federal, state and private funds.
Between 2020 and 2021, DLNR built 13 miles of fencing in the state. There are currently 39 fence projects under construction, which contributes to a statewide goal of fencing in 30% of areas important to watersheds by 2030.
Since 2009, in a test area in Kawela, there has been a tenfold decrease in erosion due to consistent culling of invasive animals in a remote area. Yuen said that the project proved that the presence of deer and other invasive species contributes to erosion.
In the eyes of animal rights activists, fencing also is a more ethical approach to interacting with the deer.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals endorses fencing as an alternative to culling or trapping.
“Axis deer are on the island through no fault of their own,” Sofia Chauvet, a media liaison at PETA, wrote in an emailed statement. “Now, it’s up to humans to share the aloha spirit with all of Molokai — and fencing could be one way to live alongside these deer, who are simply foraging to feed their families.”
Access For Hunters
But many on Molokai also rely on deer to feed their own families.
Nelson Rapanot, Molokai’s representative on the state Game Management Advisory Commission, said that hunters are concerned they will lose hunting opportunities with fencing.
He said the eradication of deer and other game animals within enclosed areas will limit supply. He added that some hunters fear that fencing will disrupt the animal’s natural migration patterns.
“They’re stopping the animals, especially the deer, from migrating from where the food is,” he said. “Eventually, whatever side of the fence the deer or the animals are on, they tend to eat the vegetation down to the ground.”
Other community leaders on Molokai and other islands are concerned that new fencing projects in the forests and higher elevations could force deer back down into residential areas and in the lowlands.
“If you fence an area off, it can cause the herds of deer to move elsewhere,” Rep. David Tarnas, chair of the house water and land committee, said. “And that has to be considered.”
But Yuen said that concern is not backed by population biology. Because the deer reproduce rapidly, she said, the fencing does not exacerbate the problem in lowland areas by forcing deer back down.
Clarification: Friday, the UH forestry agent, said that many legal hunting areas across the state are surrounded by private property, making it difficult for hunters to access game animals on public hunting grounds.
“It’s kind of a lose-lose situation,” he said. “You have a forest with a lot of game in it, so it’s not particularly valuable for plant conservation, but on the flip side it’s not accessible, so it can’t be hunted.”
He said that improved access to forests will benefit the hunting community, while also allowing for more conservation efforts.
Legislator Tarnas said he hopes the state will provide sufficient areas open for hunting so that hunters can continue to harvest. He added that the state should simultaneously work toward protecting watersheds, too.
“I think we can achieve these multiple management objectives,” he said. “But it takes an investment.”
DeCoite said that she will not obstruct any construction of the fencing but warns that community members in the districts where the fencing is being built could protest the project.
She added that she would advocate for more communication between the community and the state’s natural resource agency so that details would be ironed out beforehand in the future.
Yuen said that the deer and other invasive animals that are within the fences are extracted by either a public hunt or culling by the agency’s staff. Yuen said that the deer-proof fencing on the island is “tiny” and will not impact the overall island-wide migration of the deer.
Obstacles in Financing
State fencing projects protecting watersheds are built by the Natural Area Reserve System, a program provided by the DLNR. Over the last nine years, the Legislature pumped an average of $4 million per year into the program. Grant revenues for the program average about $5 million per year, Yuen said.
Since 2013, the agency has leveraged state funds to secure $49 million in non-state grants, she added.
However, Yuen is concerned the funding for fencing projects in the next fiscal year may not come. A recently passed house budget bill zeroed out the $4 million that the DLNR requested, which was in addition to the $4 million the agency typically receives for watershed protection projects.
“It’s kind of unthinkable that it would just be completely crossed out,” Yuen said.
If the funds do not come, the agency would need to default on its non-state grant for the year, meaning it would be giving up a total of $13 million in funding for the next fiscal year.
“It was an easy target,” Tarnas said of the axed funds. “If somebody was looking for money for something else, they looked at this and said, ‘Oh, they can do without this.’ But, from my perspective, this is a higher priority than other projects.”
To make matters worse, the cost of fence material has gone way up in the last two years. Yuen estimates the price has risen by about 20% to 25%. In addition, all of that steel needs to be imported, and supply chain snarls have caused lengthy delays for materials. Some private landowners have reportedly waited a year to receive supplies.
Construction of the fences can also be a treacherous task. Because the fences stretch alongside remote valleys and ridges, construction workers must hike to the fence line or take a helicopter in where the terrain is extreme.
“It’s extremely intense work,” she said. “You’re sometimes hanging off cliffs, going through very thick vegetation … You’re camping for days and days in the rain.”
Yuen said that the fencing projects and funding from the state would restore 19 jobs lost to the pandemic.
DeCoite, the Molokai senator, said she is concerned that the fencing jobs are not only dangerous but temporary.
“These guys are literally hanging off cliff sides and valleys that are dropping about 300-400 feet,” she said, referring to her concerns over the safety of the job. “But once the job is over, do we continue to build more fences?”