AUWAHI, MAUI – The first doe dies before the sun ascends over the hills of southern Maui.
A .45-caliber air rifle fires and, with a thwack of metal on flesh, the deer scampers before hitting the ground behind a tree. The trigger was squeezed by 10-year-old Fisher Betts. It’s his first deer of the day, shot from fewer than 100 yards from where his dad parked their truck.
The suppressed rifle is silent enough to prevent startling more than 200 other deer grazing the hillside, but powerful enough to down the spotted ungulate.
Fisher and his father Hunter Betts, 37, make a whispered plan with their friend and hunting partner Troy Helmer, 60, after the first kill. Helmer splits off, following the basin-like topography from north to south, hoping the deer catch wind of him and flee toward Betts and Fisher. Father and son push in the opposite direction, into an overgrown gulch and upward into the southern hills.
“If you use that air rifle, they’re not going to get spooked,” Helmer said before he left. “If you go up and use that other gun, we’re done.”
For these camouflaged folk, hunting and fishing is as ordinary as grocery shopping and serves the same function. They harvest hundreds of pounds of meat from these deer each year, feeding their families and communities. Helmer rarely buys any meat at all from a store.
They also contribute to solving an at least $1 million annual burden on Maui’s environment and broader food system: Inflated deer populations are destroying watersheds, eating away farmers’ crops and stealing cattle forage. While hunters and the wider community won’t support eradication — a thorny issue environmentalists have confronted while attempting to protect Maui’s imperiled ecosystems — they all acknowledge the exploding deer population needs better management.
And hunters are itching to play their part in keeping the deer in check.
Axis deer have been in Hawaii since they were gifted to King Kamehameha V in 1867 and released on Molokai. Originally from South Asia, three males and six females were introduced to Maui in 1959 and, since then, sporadic estimates have illustrated a spotty picture of what is going on with the population.
One recent assessment, done by ungulate management company KIA Hawaii, found that in the 147,483 acres between Ulupalakua and Paia, there were 46,743 deer. Maui County’s Department of Housing and Human Concerns funded the study, completed this year. Conservative population estimates now sit at approximately 60,000.
Maui County has been attempting to address the problem for years, forming its first axis deer task force in 1996. A new one was created near the end of 2021, with members from state and county agencies and large landowners trying to find solutions.
Meanwhile, Betts and Helmer estimated they saw 250 deer in about four hours of hunting on a recent Tuesday morning last month.
A plentiful deer population does not equate to easier hunting though, Betts says. More deer means more eyes and more ears – a more alert herd as a whole.
The saturation of deer is also terrible for Hawaii’s watersheds, as they feed indiscriminately and breed incessantly, affecting Maui’s already blighted water system.
Deer gnaw away plants, which damages the land’s ability to store water, leading to drier climates and inflaming the droughts Maui has been facing the past few years. The county is facing a severe drought now, during a typically wet season, which ultimately affects the county’s municipal and domestic water supply. The state Commission on Water Resource Management recently voiced its concerns.
“Streams that are normally gushing with water are barely flowing,” Deputy Director Kaleo Manuel said in a release earlier this month. “This is deepening our already grave concerns about the effects of seasonal drought on water supplies.”
That water supply affects wild vegetation that deer eat and there are already National Weather Service reports of deer impinging on agricultural lands as food becomes scarce.
A recent aerial survey of the roughly 30,000-acre Haleakala Ranch – also done by KIA Hawaii – found 8,400 deer roaming its pastures, according to Haleakala General Manager Greg Friel. That takes away the primary food source for about 1,400 cattle on the ranch.
Friel says the animals have compromised Haleakala’s concerted effort to increase its grass-fed beef operation, which relies upon herding cattle into designated grassy pastures while others regrow, to ensure a consistent source of food is available.
“The grazing program is shot,” Friel said. “The deer come and go as they please because the standard fences don’t keep them out.”
Now, the ranch is focusing on tall, ungulate-proof fencing but is hampered by supply chain issues fueled by the pandemic. Friel says he is still awaiting a shipment ordered last year.
That’s on top of the added cost of such fencing. It’s about $20-per-foot to fence the 6,000-acre parcel, almost 9.5 square miles.
Betts freezes a few hundred yards from the ranch house, across a gulch and through a thicket. Up ahead, a doe stands motionless. He passes his son the air rifle.
Fisher takes his second shot of the day. It misses.
Betts takes the rifle and fires. The deer bounds behind some thicket. It bucked before it ran, signifying a good shot, Betts tells his son.
Closer up, cherry red bubbles spume from the doe’s hide, not far from its front legs: a lung shot, an ethical kill in hunting terms.
Betts says he typically disembowels deer in place and carries the carcass out. He hangs them in his 6-by-12 foot walk-in fridge for two weeks before eating and sharing. This time, given the bounty and distance to his vehicle, he butchers in place.
“And just be forewarned,” Betts said. “Don’t be surprised if there’s a baby inside here.”
This time, there wasn’t.
Axis deer populations are predominantly female; bucks mate with several does at a time, and most does first breed after one year. Males might mature by then, but generally need to be fully grown to compete with others in the mating season.
Chital, known locally as axis deer, originally hail from South Asia where their populations are moderated by everything from tigers to crocodiles. But in Hawaii there are no natural predators.
In South Asia, about 48% of axis deer do not make it past a year old, according to wildlife biologist Steven Hess.
A recent study by Hess, which was used to inform the management of Maui’s deer, cited a “modest” estimate of 20 deer per square kilometer (about 250 acres) within its catchment area. He says there are almost certainly more deer than that.
The population inflates by 20% to 30% each year, which is in line with the county’s culling needs, as up to 30% of the herd needs to be killed just to keep the population stable, according to Hess’s estimates.
“Hunting is the only kind of mortality that’s imposed on the population and if that’s a selective removal of males, then that’s after they’ve already bred,” Hess said.
That is simply because of the way that people hunt: The bigger the deer, the larger the antlers, the more attractive it is. But it’s counterproductive for control, Hess says.
Axis deer reach trophy status when their antlers span 30 inches.
Although Betts and Helmer appreciate a trophy, they don’t usually hunt for something to adorn their homes. It’s more about filling their fridge with a local source of protein while spending time in nature with friends and family.
Betts is not even halfway through harvesting the meat before Fisher sounds the alarm: a train of deer, bucks at head and toe of the pack.
He ditches the carcass and beds down with a .270-caliber rifle about 20 yards north.
Fisher’s shot thunders, the slug audibly running through the animal. The rest of the herd flees.
“Oh, you hit him,” Betts said.
“Yeah, I got him,” Fisher responds. “That’s a nice buck.”
It clambers down the hill, injured, 240 yards away. The pair know it was hit but don’t know where.
Betts hurriedly finishes butchering the second doe, thanks the animal and tosses its skeletal and visceral remains into a bush — a meal for the feral pigs. He proceeds up the hill.
It takes another two shots to kill the deer, which eventually dies in a precarious position in the brush, but it’s a six-point buck and enough to feed the family for a month at least, the hunters say.
Helmer has rejoined the group and butchers the buck, noting the pigs, goats and several herds of deer he spotted along his route.
He thanks the animal before hiking the meat out.
The trio have an acute sense of place when they hunt: They see things a non-hunter misses, from animal tracks to certain smells. In 2019, Helmer’s tracking skills led to the rescue of Amanda Eller, who was lost in a Maui forest for 17 days. He helped rescue crews find her near one of his pig hunting spots.
But they are part of a small crowd.
There were just 10,608 Hawaii residents with hunting licenses in 2021, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife statistics. There are 15.2 million licensed hunters nationally.
Betts and hunting buddy Helmer are against dedicated trophy hunting, despite admittedly enjoying a good buck.
“I’m not an anti-wallhanger kind of hunter,” Helmer remarked before the hunt.
In fact, the walls of his house are zoological: taxidermy salmon, pigs, a couple of lynx, goats and deer. One hallway is lined with the tusky maws of wild boars.
“The bucks are cool, but I mean, at the same time, you can’t eat the horns,” he said.
But not everyone thinks that way — many out-of-state hunters are willing to spend thousands to come to Hawaii just to get an axis buck with an attractive set of antlers.
Last year, visitors to Hawaii spent just short of $140,000 on almost 1,300 licenses and tags — almost double since 2016, according to FWS.
Arrow One Ranch, in central Maui, charges $3,200 to hunt a trophy buck. A “meat hunt,” which includes two does, goes for $1,200. The ranch declined an interview.
But earning money on hunting an invasive species that plagues the land seems disingenuous to Betts and Helmer.
“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Helmer said. “They’re making money. They’re also complaining. You know, I mean, it is not really fair.”
Haleakala Ranch’s herd of cattle is its breadwinner, so having 1,400 fewer cattle because of invasive deer hurts the ranch’s bottom line. But an agreement with KIA Hawaii, the ungulate management company that recently surveyed its land, fills some of the financial deficit.
KIA Hawaii is run by Jake Muise, who also officially founded Maui Nui Venison in 2017, a company that sells the deer meat locally and across the country while also giving some to food banks. He pays ranchers, per pound, for the meat harvested on their land with his 16-strong harvesting team.
Haleakala and Ulupalakua ranches have a significant portion of their culling done by Muise’s outfits, as well as their own staff, friends and family.
The harvesting team shoots and butchers 3,000 to 4,000 deer annually on Maui and has so far killed about 20,000 animals, according to Muise.
Annual harvests will increase to 15,000 in the coming years because the outfit has doubled its butchery capacity and tripled its freezer space in a new central facility. This will yield more space for more subscribers – in addition to its hospitality customers and food bank beneficiaries – which are expected to increase to 8,000 from 1,000.
By Muise’s calculations, there would be 58,000 more deer on Maui if he wasn’t able to access ranch lands, accounting for the number of does culled.
“The ranch sees benefits of reduced populations and some cash flow,” Muise said. He would not say how much he paid per pound. “It’s not a lot, but … it’s creating value out of a liability, essentially.”
Because axis deer are crepuscular, active during twilight hours, Muise’s team works in three-hour windows, using thermal imaging and drones to locate deer in grasses up to 6 feet high.
Every deer faces a headshot before being butchered and sold on the market, with each step overseen by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors who also monitor the nighttime harvests.
Muise describes it as “harvesting,” as opposed to “hunting,” because there’s no sport in the endeavor. His team systematically pluck the deer from the pasture.
“It’s definitely not hunting, that’s for sure,” Muise said.
Still, hunters like Betts and Helmer, who is president of the Maui Hunters and Sportsmen’s Club, feel short-changed. They see themselves as part of the solution to the overpopulation problem, for ranchers and the general public, but unable to participate to the extent they might because of lack of access.
Maui is dominated by private land owners who are generally opposed to footing liabilities associated with hunting on their land, especially if someone gets hurt or dies.
Helmer has had his own run-ins with private landowners. He is not legally allowed to own a rifle because he was found guilty of poaching on Ulupalakua Ranch in the late 1990s. He went to prison in 1998 for six months and is now only allowed to hunt with a bow.
Still, Helmer’s pickup has a sticker in its window: “Give Us Axis.”
By “Axis” he means “access,” and they are one and the same in his world.
He says if landowners are willing to ensure his club can use their land for hunting, he would be able to secure insurance for the club and they could sign agreements with landowners, relieving them of any liability.
“You saw my stickers,” Helmer said. “It doesn’t say, ‘give me axis.’ It says, ‘give us axis.’”
In his fight to get more land for hunting, he is applying to be the county game commissioner for hunting, but his past life remains a hurdle.
“I have a feeling that my felonies are going to screw me up,” Helmer said.
For Betts, it’s an obvious solution.
“Let (hunters) have access to the ranch. Let it be restricted, you know,” Betts said. “Of course, there’s got to be a system with checks and balances and to make sure everybody’s doing shit right. But then you’re helping the community and you help the ranchers.”
But for Haleakala Ranch, the way to ensure their liability is protected is by letting only Muise’s outfits and their own circle of employees and contacts hunt and control populations — not open it up to the public.
“They have to be sponsored because one of us is responsible for that hunting party,” said Friel. “I don’t know if you’ve been in public hunting areas. I mean, it’s pretty risky sometimes.”
Helmer reaches into his pickup’s bed and opens an icebox, extracting containers and ziplock bags of meat. There are two types of sausage and some sliders — all venison he hunted and prepared earlier.
Most of the wild-harvested meat ends up on the plates of kupuna or family or friends or members of Helmer’s church. It’s the same for Betts: some for his fridge, the rest for friends.
And they have no complaints about the meat.
“This is how we eat,” Helmer said. “I’d rather eat that than go to the store.”
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.