Hawaii Gov. David Ige has officially declared Maui County a disaster area following nearly two years of drought conditions there.

The move allows the state to provide relief for damages and suffering — as well as to take immediate measures to “reduce and control” the axis deer population on those islands, Ige said in a statement Wednesday.

The animals have been starving to death in droves on Molokai, prompting public agencies and private landowners to dig fresh pits to bury mounting carcasses. Malnourished deer have been fleeing their usual grazing pastures in what locals say are unprecedented numbers to desperately scour farms and homestead land for any food or crops they can find.

A dead Axis Deer rests in an open field along Maunaloa Highway after drought and famine is killing the animals on Molokai. January 15, 2021.
An Axis deer carcass lies in an open field along Maunaloa Highway earlier this month. On Wednesday, Gov. Ige declared Maui County a disaster area due to the drought. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Maui County’s farmers and ranchers are grateful to Gov. Ige for signing the emergency drought proclamation,” Mayor Michael Victorino said in a statement. “Since this drought started … our agricultural sector has sustained substantial pasture and crop damage from Axis deer in search of food.”

The deer were first introduced to the islands from Asia as a gift to King Kamehemeha V over 150 years ago. State officials say the erosion caused by the animals does significant environmental damage, yet many Molokai residents rely on the deer as a vital source of protein, and many Hawaiians consider the hunting of the animals to be a protected cultural practice.

A 2019 state measure that sought to significantly reduce and eradicate invasive species in Maui County — including the deer — failed to pass after some community members testified against it. On Wednesday, the state legislators who introduced that 2019 bill, Rep. Lynn DeCoite and Sen. J. Kalani English, expressed thanks to Ige for his declaration, which they said would help to address the situation.

Trends over the past century show that droughts in Hawaii are occurring more frequently, lasting longer and growing more severe, researchers say.

The emergency proclamation lasts through March 28.

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