HO’OLEHUA, Molokai — For more than a century, the axis deer that roam Molokai have played an integral role on the island.
Lately, however, those light-colored, spotted animals have fallen into disturbingly bad shape.
They’re sickened, starving and dying at what locals say is an unprecedented rate. The herds are fleeing their normal pastures, decimated by drought, to scour farms and central homestead lands for any plants, crops or water they can find.
Public agencies and private landowners have been digging fresh pits to dispose of swiftly mounting carcasses, which attract flies and maggots. The stench can be overwhelming. Even the state’s Emergency Management Agency is part of the response.
Molokai’s special relationship with the deer has gone awry.
“I’ve never seen (this) on Molokai,” said Nelson Rapanot, the island’s representative on the state Game Management Advisory Commission. “As long as I’ve been born and raised here, I’ve never seen it like this before.”
The culprit, Rapanot and others on Molokai said, is a “perfect storm” of growing herds, one of the worst droughts to hit the island in years and poor pasture management by private landowners.
Stopping the ongoing calamity from recurring will require a costly monitoring and management effort that’s never existed on Molokai, various leaders, officials and residents interviewed for this story said.
To this day, no one’s sure how many deer actually inhabit the island, although some unofficial estimates have put the number above 60,000. State officials say that knowledge is essential for effective planning.
It will also require some difficult discussions between the farmers, ranchers, Hawaiian homesteaders and others who form the island’s tight-knit community of around 7,500 people. Not everyone on Molokai sees the deer, and their place on the island, the same way.
Trends over the past century show that droughts in Hawaii are occurring more frequently, lasting longer and growing more severe, researchers say.
That will be “especially problematic” in leeward areas such as west Molokai, said Abby Frazier, a research fellow at the East-West Center who studies droughts and climate variability.
West Molokai is where most of the deer live, and where the problems appear to have been most severe.
The axis deer, like the pigs, cattle and other hooved animals introduced to Hawaii, often cause significant environmental damage, state officials say. Unlike other invasive species, however, the deer hold a special status on Molokai.
For more than a century, the animals have provided a vital source of protein for the sparsely populated island, where locals often rely on the hunting of free game to put food on the table.
Homes typically include an extra freezer to store the venison. The meat is leaner than beef and often served at birthdays, graduations and large community gatherings.
In fact, the deer have been on Molokai for so long — dating back to 1868 when several arrived from Asia as a gift to King Kamehameha V — that many Native Hawaiians consider it a cultural practice to hunt the animals, one that’s protected under the state constitution.
“Our deer need to be respected and valued,” said Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who represents Molokai on the Maui County Council. The local community should take care of the deer population “because they take care of us.”
Currently, herds of starving axis deer roam near towns and population centers such as Kaunakakai in broad daylight. They devour papaya, bananas, lilikoi, hibiscus and various other plants not normally part of their diet on any land that’s not fenced in, locals say.
“You name it, they eat it,” said Faith Tuipulotu, who runs a small organic farm with her husband on a Hawaiian homestead in Ho’olehua, in the center of the island.
Tuipulotu said they were fortunate to be able to erect a $10,000 fence in 2018 with a loan and state grant funding to keep out the growing number of deer. Today, the fenceless homesteads around them have been decimated, Tuipulotu said.
“Unless you have a fence, you don’t have a farm,” said Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who represents Molokai in the state House and runs a family sweet potato farm.
At night, driving conditions have grown more hazardous as residents dodge deer on the island’s rural roads. Residents of the town of Maunaloa are reporting an increase in collisions with the animals, Rawlins-Fernandez said.
Then, in November, state and county officials started getting reports of the deaths.
At least 1,000 deer have been reported dead since the fall, according to state land officials. It’s contributed to grim scenes across the island.
Recently, several dozen dead deer lay along Kaluakoi Road in various states of decomposition. Flocks of white egrets picked at several of the carcasses.
Elsewhere, local surfers recently spotted deer remains against the rocks just offshore and warned nearby beachgoers to stay out of the water, according to Rawlins-Fernandez.
Private landowners and public agencies have dug at least 10 burial sites with backhoes in west Molokai.
When carcasses are found too decomposed to move to the pits they’re doused in lye instead. Earlier this month, patches of the white powder could be seen dotting the west Molokai landscape.
Necropsies performed for the Department of Land and Natural Resources show that starvation — not infectious disease — is the likely culprit, according to state officials.
“It’s like a perfect storm, where everything comes together. It never happened like this,” said Walter Ritte, the prominent Hawaiian activist, as he watched at least two dozen axis deer graze recently in Ho’olehua around noon.
Healthy deer are skittish and don’t appear until after dark, said Ritte, who’s hunted deer on Molokai most of his life. “This whole island,” he said, “there’s something going on.”
Part of the problem is social media, said Ritte, Rapanot and others. Many hunters on Molokai in recent years have started killing more bucks instead of does so they can showcase the antlers online.
The imbalance leaves more does alive and fewer bucks. Yet, the few bucks that remain are still capable impregnating the larger number of female deer. That’s contributed to a noticeable population growth in recent years, locals say.
Meanwhile, Molokai has been stuck in a drought since August 2019, according to Kevin Kodama, hydrologist at the National Weather Service Honolulu forecast office. It’s the only island in the main Hawaiian chain to have remained in drought conditions for that long, he said.
The island did get some rain last week. Nonetheless, as of Thursday the U.S. Drought Monitor map run by federal agencies still showed westernmost Molokai in the most severe drought classification possible — “Exceptional.”
Rapanot works as an outfitter, providing guided hunts on land he leases from Molokai Ranch, the largest landowner on the island. The ranch itself is owned by a Singapore firm and includes more than 55,000 acres, encompassing most of west Molokai.
Rapanot said that he thinks Molokai Ranch previously had more cattle grazing than the property could sustain, forcing cattle and deer to compete for sparse available grass when the drought hit.
He also thinks the ranch could do a better job of enforcing its current policy that hunters kill five does to every buck to help rebalance the heard.
“I’ve been telling them that since day one. We’ve got to manage them,” Rapanot said. “You’ve got to put people in charge of the hunting who know and understand managing. Not just, ‘Oh there’s a lot of deer.’”
DeCoite, Ritte and others in the community similarly criticized Molokai Ranch’s management of its pastures, saying it worsened the impacts of the recent drought.
Molokai Ranch General Manager Todd Svetin said the ranch has been a target for blame at times but that there was little the outfit could do to mitigate the harsh impacts of the drought. Rapanot is not an expert in cattle management, he added.
Molokai Ranch did lose “quite a few” cattle due to the drought and the competition with deer, Svetin said. He declined to give numbers, but said the ranch started with fewer than 1,000 cattle and has about 300 left.
The ranch regularly hosts community and employee deer hunts to help reduce the herd. Hunters have been encountering emaciated deer, and they often shoot them just to put them out of their misery, Svetin said.
State land officials say there’s no seasonal restrictions or limits on how many deer can be hunted on Molokai. Nearly 7,000 were hunted on Molokai Ranch property in the past year, according to Scott Fretz, a branch manager with the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Prior to the drought, DeCoite introduced a measure to address growing concerns over the deer, including their encroachment into farms and populated areas.
House Bill 265, in 2019, looked to provide funds to “substantially reduce and eradicate” several invasive species in Maui County, including the axis deer.
The choice of the word “eradicate,” however, drew swift opposition from some in the community, including Ritte, who flew to Oahu to testify against the bill.
A subsequent draft replaced “eradicate” with “management” and noted the animals’ importance on Molokai, but the damage was done. The bill failed to make it out of the House.
“Eradication (was) a harsh word to use,” DeCoite said in a recent interview. Still, she said, much of what’s happening now could have been prevented if it had passed.
“You have a community that’s very upset. You have farming entities that are pissed off and the stench of dead carcasses,” DeCoite said.
She also released a Jan. 12 statement with J. Kalani English, who represents Molokai in the state Senate, to remind the public that they had pushed that legislation.
“Due to opposition from certain Molokaʻi community members, the bill died and no funding was appropriated,” it read.
Nonetheless, Ritte and Rawlins-Fernandez, the Molokai councilwoman, say the measure took the wrong approach. Any good management plan would need a baseline assessment of the deer population first, Rawlins-Fernandez said.
Some $300,000 recently budgeted by the Maui County Council for Molokai to manage feral animals could go toward that effort, she said. The application process to award that money is underway.
Counting all the deer on Molokai would be nearly impossible, said Glenn Teves, a county extension agent for the University of Hawaii Manoa Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences.
Instead, Teves recommended managing deer in separate quadrants on the island. Teves said it’s clear to him that the herd has been growing and that the sick deer should be killed so that the rest of the herd can remain healthy without straying into farms and neighborhoods.
Rapanot, meanwhile, recommended using drones to help count the animals. He also advocated for a program that could financially compensate hunters when they kill a sick deer in order to help the herd.
“We’ve got to practice management,” he said, “and we’ve got to control our own destiny.”
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