The state is developing new rules to address mounting problems with goats, pigs and deer but the group representing a crucial stakeholder has been floundering.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources is preparing to start the long-overdue process of updating Hawaii’s hunting rules, with the state’s ballooning invasive species population in mind.

Goats and pigs have become a growing concern for drivers, farmers and others, particularly in West Hawaii. Axis deer are now a costly environmental issue throughout Maui County. And even Oahu has its share of problems with ungulates entering neighborhoods.

Hunters want to have meaningful input in whatever changes the Board of Land and Natural Resources might make to license requirements or other restrictions. But there are significant doubts as to whether the state group that was established in 2016 to speak on their behalf can effectively lobby for those interests.

Hunters across Hawaii have long taken issue with the state’s treatment of hunting, whether that be for axis deer throughout Maui County or game animals across Big Island. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

The nine-member Game Management Advisory Commission failed to meet at all last year due to lack of quorum. It has two new interim members now so should be able to get together soon for the first time since June 2022, but even the lawmaker who sparked its creation has doubts about its ability to serve as the voice of Hawaii’s hunting community.

Virtually any hunter who’s ever been involved with the commission would agree it “hasn’t had any traction” in its eight years of existence, Rep. Richard Onishi said.

The commission has failed to fulfill its original purpose, he said, which was for hunters to have a say in state eradication programs and game management plans.

feral pigs Aina Haina
Wild pigs can be found statewide and in urban areas, including roadside in Aina Haina on Oahu. (Courtesy: Craig Fitzgerald)

The general sentiment among hunters is that BLNR does what it wants and does not listen to the commission’s advice anyway.

“You’re only going to run into the wall so many times,” Onishi said.

First appointed in 2018, Ryan Kohatsu represented East Hawaii island on the commission for two years. He said he did not seek another term because it was “wasting my time.”

Two additional interim members — representing Maui and West Hawaii — were appointed recently. That gives the commission enough members to make quorum and hold its first meeting in 2024, which has yet to be scheduled.

DLNR wildlife biologist Jason Omick, who coordinates the commission, said he is “pretty sure” that the issue was a logjam at the state Boards and Commissions office, not necessarily a lack of applications to sit on the commission.

Regardless, Onishi said, “I really can’t blame hunters for not wanting to participate.”

The role of Hawaii’s commission is purely advisory, existing to weigh in on issues relating to hunting and game management for BLNR, unlike other states where such commissions are empowered to set bag limits and develop game management plans.

Big Changes Afoot

Before taking up a more comprehensive set of permanent changes to hunting rules, the DLNR’s board will consider interim changes targeting the goat problem on the Kona side of the Big Island.

The proposed interim rules are scheduled for board approval on March 8 and include changes to bag limits and hunting days, “especially intended to remedy the impacts of invasive ungulate species” on forests. The rules also include special conditions for hunting on more than a dozen parcels across the island.

Goats can be found across Hawaii, both in the wild and managed by farmers and ranchers. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022)

Hunting groups have in the past been vocal opponents to various initiatives aimed at heavy-handed population control, such as eradication or sterilization programs.

The interim rules will act as a stop-gap measure as DLNR works to make “quite a lot of changes” to its permanent rules to update hunting regulations and regulatory language, according Omick.

That could include the addition of crossbows to allowed weaponry and opening up further opportunities for hunting and higher bag limits, he added.

The DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife does not have a total population estimate for Big Island, but estimates Puu Waawaa and Puu Anahulu had a goat population of 2,150 in 2022.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

On any given Sunday, Onishi said dead goats “pile up” when road workers are not actively clearing them. He said he has counted up to 20 dead animals along Highway Route 200, which connects Hilo and Kona.

A feral ungulate task force, established in 2022 to address the prevalence of goats and pigs in West Hawaii, has suggested strengthening roadside fences and adding four more positions under DOFAW. The group plans to develop a plan for the Legislature before June.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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