How Eating Hawai‘i’s Invasive Deer Saves Its Ecosystems

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As the November night fell, a cosmic field of deer eyes illuminated every direction, blinking like stars. Jake Muise, cofounder of Maui Nui Venison, drove slowly past herds crowding the hills of ‘Ulupalakua Ranch in Maui, Hawai‘i. He explained to me that the roadside fences used to be all too short. The deer hopped the formerly four-feet-tall barricades (since retrofitted to eight feet), roaming everywhere in search of grass to graze. Even without his explanation, the endless twinkle I saw around us put the issue in context: There are far too many deer on the island.

The Axis deer are invasive to Hawai‘i. In 1867, the trading company Jardine Matheson allegedly brought seven of the spotted deer from India to Moloka‘i at King Kamehameha V’s request. With no natural predators or seasonal swings, the deer population easily and steadily grew. They became a source of nourishment and hunting traditions across Hawai‘i. In September 1959, the archipelago’s Territorial Legislature released two bucks and three does in Maui’s Pu’u O Kali forest in order to encourage recreational hunting. Growing up on the island in the ’90s, I never saw deer, but on my recent visit while reporting this story, it was hard not to notice them. Today, an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 deer live in Maui alone. Left unmanaged, the population will reach 200,000 in the next two decades at a 30 percent annual increase.

A small deer population benefits the community as a viable food resource. If their population growth continues at the current rate, however, the deer will eliminate their own sustenance. They will starve, or, in order to avoid that, wander far and wide, demolishing home gardens, devastating crops of local ranches and farms, and colliding with cars. And they’ll eliminate rare flora species of cyanea, clermontia, and geranium, to name just a few.

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Maui Nui Venison, which officially launched in 2017, is trying to manage the problem. The company hunts, butchers, and commercially sells the deer with the goal to both maintain them as a food source and manage their population in order to protect the rare and vital ecosystems unique to Hawai‘i, which environmentalists often refer to as “The Endangered Species Capital of the World.”

Ku‘ulani Muise, cofounder of Maui Nui (she and Jake Muise are married), finds the company’s practice a deeply Hawaiian one. Her family is native to Moloka‘i and when she was growing up, her father hunted deer for food. They ate venison teriyaki weekly for dinner. Now many of her family members work in conservation. “To find a balance for any—and maybe even all—life across the landscape is very much in line with the culture I grew up in,” she told me. “It’s a culture that was formed on these small, completely isolated islands in the middle of the vast Pacific. Balance is everything, and conservation and culture, for me, are inexplicably linked.”

The nearly 9,000-acres of Waikamoi Preserve in Maui are dripping with water, covered in moss, and teeming with layers of native ferns, lichens, shrubs, and trees. Forested watersheds like Waikamoi are critical to the health of Hawai‘i’s water and soil, and non-native herbivores like the Axis deer pose a grave threat to them.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>