Opinion: New law could help resolve Maui’s axis deer problem
Jonathan Helton – policy researcher
with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaiʻi
Maui’s struggle with invasive deer might have just gotten easier to tackle thanks to a bill signed into law by Governor Josh Green.
Passed by the Legislature earlier this year, HB1382, now Act 54, allows nonprofits to donate wild game meat to “under-resourced” communities, including the homeless.
The new law also calls for the formation of a task force to study ways to improve the state’s capacity to process meat and recommend reforms to the state Legislature.
Together, these changes could help curb the growth of invasive species, such Maui’s estimated 60,000 axis deer and all the wild hogs, goats and sheep that plague communities across the state.
In testimony submitted in favor of the bill, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said, “axis deer mitigation is a serious concern in Maui County because they eat cattle food sources and farmers’ crops, cause soil erosion from over grazing, and threaten native species.”
He said enactment of the bill also “would support fighting hunger in Maui County.”
The Maui County Farm Bureau testified that changing meat-donation laws would provide “an inexpensive source of protein for the needy,” and that “states across the country have been updating their good Samaritan laws to include wild game as an authorized donation.”
Other groups that spoke out in favor of the bill included the state Agribusiness Development Corp., the state Department of Agriculture, the Hawaiʻi Forest Industry Association, the Hawaiʻi Farm Bureau, the Hawaiʻi Cattlemen’s Council and the Hawaiʻi Farmers Union United.
But there are still obstacles in the way of taking full advantage of this new source of meat products, and that’s what the task force will be looking into.
For one, Hawaiʻi lacks the processing capacity to turn large amounts of wild game into edible meat, according to Bryan Mayer, a nationally recognized butcher and educator who also has been working to market Maui venison to the public.
“Access to slaughter and processing here is fairly limited — certainly here on Oʻahu, but across the state,” he said on a recent episode of “Hawaiʻi Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaiʻi network.
“The focus has pretty much been on cattle,” he said. “But we’ve got tons of other farmers here raising hogs, raising sheep and goat, chickens and other monogastric animals. … On top of that, we’ve got an invasive species population of deer and wild pig.”
Federal regulations complicate the situation too. Because wild animals such as deer are considered “non-amenable species,” federal officials won’t inspect them for free, as they do for cows, chickens, pigs and other farm-raised meat animals.
This means that anyone interested in selling wild game commercially must pay hefty inspection fees, which according to Mayer can amount to hundreds of dollars per hour.
Mayer said another issue is the dwindling number of people who want to go into the meat-processing business.
“If I were a young farmer right now, especially if I were a young hog or sheep or goat farmer, it looks kind of bleak,” he said. “And so we need to figure out a way to not only get these facilities built or allow the current facilities to process, but we need to really incentivize folks and train folks to do this work.”
According to the Maui County Farm Bureau, a “long-term sustainable solution to our feral animal problem lies in a comprehensive plan involving various government and private parties. It requires cooperation.”
This new law seems to be a small step in that direction and will hopefully open the door to more reforms that put Hawaiʻi on a path toward better management of its various invasive species.
*****Views expressed in Opinion pieces are those of the author’s alone and do not reflect or represent the opinions, policies or positions of Maui Now.*****