KIHEI Ñ Approximately 150 people herded into the Kihei Community Center on Thursday night to take aim at another alien species problem breeding in Maui's wilderness.
Some are beginning to call it "Bambi vs. Hawaii." And Maui better watch out.
While some might have difficulty imagining the dangers posed by cute, seemingly harmless axis deer, a picture began emerging of how people and growing herds will have problems co-existing in the future.
"The deer hold a lot of cards," said wildlife biologist Steven Anderson during a meeting sponsored by the Maui Axis Deer Group. "I think Hawaii is the underdog."
While growth and population estimates are very difficult to pin down, information handed out during Thursday's meeting put Maui's deer population at no fewer than 3,000 and as many as 5,000. That population is expected to double in four to five years, meaning there could be more than 10,000 axis deer on Maui in less than a decade.
"The future reproduction potential is huge," Anderson said.
That's especially true when you consider axis deer have only one natural predator in Hawaii Ñ feral dogs. (In its natural habitat in India, deer are a favorite menu item for tigers.)Ê
Hunters take a number of deer on Maui, and collisions with vehicles have killed at least 36 deer on roads in 18 months Ñ although the actual number of vehicle-deer collisions is probably double that number, Anderson said.
Axis deer appear to be naturally resistant to disease and parasites, he said. Female deer are sexually mature at a year old, and, in a study conducted on Molokai, about 85 percent of female deer were pregnant at any given time. The Molokai deer population is growing by about 18 percent per year.
As the deer population increases, the number of human vs. Bambi conflicts will rise proportionately, Anderson said.
Now, vehicle collisions with deer could be occurring as often as once a week if the number of suspected unreported accidents is taken into account. Anderson said he's concerned about the proposed route of the Kihei-Upcountry highway because it runs through "the heart of deer country."Ê
The designated route is from North Kihei to the junction of Haleakala Highway and Haliimaile Road.Ê
Axis deer are nocturnal animals, and they'd be active when commuting workers are most likely to be on the roadway between Kihei and Upcountry during winter months, when the sun rises later and sets earlier, he said.
He suggested posting a 50 mph speed limit during the day and a 40 mph limit during the night for the planned highway.
Anderson said deer can have an adverse impact on Maui's watershed area, harboring or transmitting human and livestock diseases.
He said deer are quite adaptive and can live in wet, rain forest areas, although they probably prefer drier areas. The animals' ability to live in remote, rugged areas can make it difficult to control them in those regions.
Farmers also are beginning to see substantial crop damage, running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, from axis deer herds, he said. That includes tens of thousands of dollars in damage to Maui Pineapple Co. fields.
Golf courses are reporting damage to fairways and greens. Native Hawaiian cultural sites have been overrun by deer, and endangered plants and protected conservation areas are seeing the adverse impacts of deer herds, he said.
But deer are not just harmful nuisances.Ê
Anderson pointed out that deer herds also have economic and other benefits.
They're beautiful animals, much sought after by sport and subsistence hunters for their low-fat meat. Guided tours also have been arranged for photographic safaris, Anderson said.
Controlling deer populations has not been easy on the Mainland or in other countries where axis deer have become a nuisance. Hunting has been an effective tool, but animal rights proponents object to killing the deer. Contraception and sterilization has been tried with some success with captive populations of deer, but those methods so far have been logistically difficult and impractical in the wild, Anderson said.
During the meeting, Aimee Anderson of the Maui Humane Society asked if the state could pledge not to use snares as a way of reducing the deer population on Maui. Opponents of snares say animals, particularly pigs, caught in the devices don't die immediately and endure prolonged suffering.
Anderson, who conducted his study under a contract with the state, said he could not respond for state agencies, but he thought snares would be used only as a last resort. He said the idea of using snares had not come up yet as an option.
In a statement released Friday, Gilbert Coloma-Agaran, chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said it's too early to say what options the state might use.
"We're at the start of the process," he said. "We're going to look at solutions that hopefully everybody can live with."
Coloma-Agaran said his department is looking first at seeing what ideas members of the public might have to address the problem.
But, for now, "we're not looking to use snares as a tool to control axis deer on Maui," he said.
Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. pointed to Molokai as an island where deer populations are held in check by hunters seeking meat for their families.
Some people felt technology can go too far in culling the numbers of deer.
"I'd hate to see shooting from a helicopter," said Benjamin Joaquin of Makawao.
Kenneth De Coite, a cattle rancher and hunter from Kokomo, recalled how state and federal officials used helicopters as platforms to shoot goats.
"They just wiped them out," he said.
De Coite said he finds deer meat healthy and "delicious . . . the best you ever find."
He suggested controlling axis deer numbers through a combination of legal, regulated hunting and the installation of 10-foot-high fences in some areas.
Police Lt. George Fontaine of the Kihei patrol division said there have been a number of reports of illegal hunting at night, particularly near the Makena Resort.
He said he worries about community safety when hunters are out shooting deer at night.
"It's really dangerous," he said.
Haiku resident Carol Gentz, an employee of The Nature Conservancy, said her major concern is with the animals' impact on protected forest areas, where foraging deer are damaging native plants.
Anderson advised that anyone who wants to keep the deer away should use dogs.
"Generally, they don't like them because dogs eat them," he said.
At the end of Thursday night's meeting, participants were invited to join working groups to address various aspects of the axis deer problem. Those groups included: natural resource management; economic; public safety and health; and Hawaiian culture, hunting and ethics.
Another meeting by the Maui Axis Deer Group is to be held later at the Kihei Community & Aquatic Center. The time and date have not been set.