Axis deer have been spotted on the Big Island, creating concerns the invasive mammal could destroy crops, spread disease, and damage fragile native ecosystems, state officials said Friday.
A coalition of resource managers have spotted the deer in districts as ranging from Kohala, Kau, Kona and Mauna Kea, the Department of Land and Natural Resources said.
The animals are native to the Indian foothills of the Himalayan mountains and Sri Lanka. They were first introduced to Molokai and Oahu in 1868, Lanai in 1920, and Maui in 1959, but they hadn’t been confirmed to be on the Big Island until now.
Department Chairman William Aila says the state is developing a plan to remove the deer. It’s also surveying more areas where people have reported seeing them.
"We consider this a serious problem with far-reaching economic and environmental impacts to the agriculture industry and native ecosystems on the island," Aila said in a news release.
The axis deer population has exploded on Maui over the past decade, growing sixfold to more than 12,000 animals today.
They’re increasingly moving onto more ranches, farms and urban areas. They’ve caused millions of dollars in damages to farmers and other land owners.
Paula J. Hegele, president of Tedeschi Vineyards Ltd., said her company lost about 6 tons of grapes that would have generated revenue of about $150,000. The Maui vineyard also expects to lose a large share of next year’s production because deer saliva bacteria have damaged her plants and deer have ripped down vines from trellis systems.
The vineyard plans to install deer fencing around all of its 23 acres, she said.
The Big Island already struggles with other invasive mammals like pigs, goats and sheep that damage native forests. But the axis deer presents a new type of menace because it’s so large.
The state says there aren’t any fences on the Big Island that are tall enough to keep the animal out. If the deer were to become established on the island, some 300 miles of conservation fences on the island would need to be raised to 8 feet high at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.
"We will need to take quick and effective action to prevent costly and destructive impacts on the Big Island that will last for generations, perhaps forever," Aila said.