Axis Deer on the Big Island? Reports of Possible Sightings in District of Ka`u

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On the Big Island, where a proposal to introduce axis deer in the 1970s ground to a halt after environmentalists raised hell, rumors abound now that axis deer have arrived anyway and that a reproducing population of them exists in the large district of Ka`u. One rancher has reported seeing a doe with at least one fawn near Na`alehu.

Steve Hess, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Discipline, has studied mouflon in the area. He calls the reports of axis deer “pretty reliable” and states that natural resource management agencies at the state and federal levels are “gearing up to do something about it.”

Jan Schipper, head of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, emphasized that the reports weren’t confirmed. “We often get reports of axis deer, but most of them turn out to be mouflon that have lost their horns or have mange,” he said. Still, he added, “there are rumors that the deer have been here a long time.”

Among the actions that Hess and others have taken or planned to take are stationing cameras in remote areas that are triggered by passing animals, in the hope of obtaining hard evidence of deer, and meeting with area landowners to develop strategies for dealing with the deer, whose presence can be devastating to ranchers and farmers.

Also, the source of the deer, assuming they are present, cannot be easily determined. Axis deer on Moloka`i may be infected with bovine tuberculosis (BTB), raising the prospect that cattle on the Big Island could be at risk if the deer in Ka`u were brought from Moloka`i. As a condition of maintaining its BTB-free status, and thus be able to ship livestock interstate without conditions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires, among other things, that the state restrict the movement of feral pigs and axis deer from the east end of the island.

But in fact, there are no restrictions, in the regulations of either the state Department of Agriculture or Department of Land and Natural Resources, on the inter-island transport of game. Nothing in state law (Chapter 197, Hawai`i Revised Statutes) seems to address specifically the deliberate introduction of game animals to an island by private parties.

Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawai`i, is alarmed at the rumors. If there’s any chance they’re true, she said, “the state should put together a SWAT team and take them out. Put a bounty on them, hire sharpshooters to take them out – do anything we can to eradicate them.”

In Hawai`i, Steven B. Anderson studied axis deer (Axis axis axis) for several years on Maui, documenting their harmful effects on native ecosystems and agricultural enterprises. In a report he prepared in 1999 – “Axis Deer Overview and Profile” – Anderson quoted the noted territorial botanist Harold Lyon, who, commenting on a proposed release of axis deer at Pohakuloa, on the Big Island, warned: “They will range in the cane fields as well as in the forest … The deer can graze down the forage grasses and other plants much closer to the ground than can the cattle, so in all overstocked pasture the deer can thrive while the cattle starve.” 

“During my study,” Anderson wrote, “I have witnessed [both] warnings come true.” On Maui, deer are frequently found in the cane fields of HC&S, he reported. “Unfortunately, I have also witnessed cattle in very poor condition (nutritionally) co-existing with deer that had continued to thrive under extreme drought conditions.”

Anderson went on to list the “principal elements of axis deer biology that cause it to be problematic here in Hawai`i:” the lack of natural predators; the deer’s “extreme elusivity (hiding) and nocturnal activity;” and its “behavioral variability, adaptability and opportunism.” He added: “This species has also evolved in the face of environmental extremes in Asia that it will never encounter here in Hawai`i. It is adapted to a much wider temperature range, a much greater breadth of precipitation extremes, a much broader range of common plant species, and much more stealthy predators (tigers) than hunters generally are.”

BIISC’s Schipper told Environment Hawai`i that if the deer are on the island, they arrived without any formal permission or notice. “We don’t have a lot of control over what comes onto the island,” he said. Even with species that are listed as noxious or invasive, there’s a problem controlling their transport, he said. “Fire ants, for example, show up everywhere, and we can’t track them. We can’t open containers or monitor the transport of vectors.” In the case of axis deer, they don’t even appear on any state list as a noxious species whose inter-island transport might be prohibited.

If axis deer are discovered on private property, said Hess, there’s nothing the state could do to eradicate them without the owner’s permission. Perhaps, if they move onto adjoining land with more cooperative owners, or onto state land, they could be hunted, “but I’m not sure they’re even regulated as game” on the Big Island, he added.

“It’s an odd situation,” Hess said. “Nobody anticipated this.”

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 21, Number 9 April 2011

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