State officials are developing plans to remove axis deer in Hawaii County before damage becomes significant to ranch grasslands, farm crops and plants that are vital to maintain watershed areas.
"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," said William Aila, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Kahua Ranch Ltd. Chairman Monte Richards said axis deer can cause great damage to Hawaii island’s forest in Kohala and become difficult to remove once they’re established.
"The thing is to get to them early, and you’ve got a chance," Richards said.
Richards said Hawaii island ranchers successfully fought against the idea of importing axis deer in the 1960s. He suspects the axis deer were illegally shipped to the island in recent years by someone who wanted the animal for game hunting.
State conservation officials working closely with trackers and using game cameras to survey areas in recent weeks have confirmed the presence of axis deer across the island, including in Kohala, Kau, Kona and Mauna Kea.
Jan Schipper, manager of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, said he has received reports spotting anywhere from a single deer to herds of 10.
Aila said his department will come up with the plan, but details have not been worked out. On Lanai, state forestry and wildlife officials manage deer hunting season through part of the year.
State conservation officials are worried about the impact to forest and native ecosystems and threatened and endangered species on Hawaii island. Officials say the cost of putting up 8-foot-high fences to keep the deer out of conservation areas could total tens of millions of dollars.
Wild axis deer have become a major problem on Maui, where they have caused millions of dollars in losses to farmers and ranchers, in addition to threats to native plant species.
"If you wait 10 years, then there’s no chance of an agricultural economy," said Schipper, whose group has learned from the experience on Maui farms.
Schipper said the axis deer were easier to control in small open areas of Lanai and Molokai but have been difficult to control in large spaces like Maui, with forests, and landowners who don’t allow hunting. "Maui has a lot of areas to hide," he said.
Schipper said state officials do not know who is shipping the deer to Hawaii island.
Haleakala Ranch General Manager J. Scott Meidell said axis deer have competed with the company’s livestock for forage.
"It turns out that the forage tanked in July-August as the combination of drought and deer kicked in," Meidell said.
Farmers in the Upcountry region were severely affected, as well.
Tedeschi Vineyards Ltd. President Paula J. Hegele said the vineyard lost six productive acres this year, resulting in the estimated loss of six tons of grapes and about $150,000.
Hegele said Tedeschi Vineyards expects to lose a great deal of next year’s production because of this year’s damage, including broken trellis systems where the deer ripped down the vines.
She said the vineyard will put up fencing surrounding 23 acres, resulting in huge additional costs.
Axis deer, originally from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, have white spots on their coat, and females weigh about 100 pounds.
The deer have the ability to survive in extreme conditions — from monsoons to droughts — and are capable of eating various plants, including the bark off hardwood trees.
Axis deer were first introduced to Molokai and Oahu in 1868, Lanai in 1920 and Maui in 1959.
The state asks Hawaii County residents to report any sightings of deer by calling the Big Island Invasive Species Committee hot line at 961-3299 or emailing Jan Schipper at firstname.lastname@example.org.