Imagine higher agricultural yields, fewer invasive species, and a new economic product that’s as versatile as it is plentiful: venison. That was the vision of the founders of the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative (MADHC), a new initiative organized by the County of Maui. Its goal is to help farmers, ranchers and landowners control invasive axis deer on their property while addressing food security with zero waste. MADHC members are a group of certified, trained, hunters who can provide harvesting services to those receiving damage from axis deer. The meat will be shared between hunters and landowners, and in some cases, local slaughterhouses will process meat for resale.
While the cooperative is already active on Maui, some Molokai residents are looking at the possibilities for the Friendly Isle — turning venison into a trademark specialty while helping out farmers with deer problems. Phyllis Robinson, one of MADHC’s founders and pilot coordinator, said it’s still early in the process, but her goal is to be able to incorporate Molokai and Lanai into the program.
“We’d like to plant the seed of awareness,” she said. “It could be helpful to have a coordinated effort county-wide but unique efforts on each island.”
Robinson said she has been in communication with Molokai axis deer rancher and hunter Desmond Manaba to explore the possibility of establishing an auxiliary board on Molokai to organize similar services on the island and be part of the cooperative umbrella.
Manaba, who has been deer ranching on Molokai for 18 years, said he sees tremendous potential economic benefit axis deer.
“Axis deer are one of the tastiest and healthiest animals to eat,” he said. “As the world market is turning toward organic, axis deer… [could offer] success for Molokai entrepreneurs.” But as one of Molokai’s more destructive invasive species, he called the dear “a problem for generations.”
Farmers and ranchers experience thousands of dollars of damage from axis deer every year.
“We have a lot of deer problems on the island,” said homesteader and owner of L&R Farms Lynn DeCoite. She said she already works with a licensed hunter to control the herds on her property, but her crops still suffer damage, especially during the current drought.
“We expect that the hunters’ cooperative will provide a valuable, vital service in a professional manner, as one of many strategies to control impacts from the ever-growing numbers of deer,” said County Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons, a member of the Maui Axis Deer Working Group, in a Maui County press release last week.
The cooperative is beginning a four-month pilot program on Maui, funded by a $37,000 grant from the Maui County Office of Economic Development.
A Problem of Timing
Manaba said he has been trying to sell venison for years but has run into some logistical challenges.
For wild venison to be USDA certified for resale, there are several time-sensitive and potentially costly requirements involved. An inspector has to be present when the deer is shot; the deer must be shot humanely (in the head), and within three hours post mortem, the carcass must be inspected at a USDA certified slaughterhouse or mobile processing facility. To make matters trickier, according to Manaba, it’s best to shoot the deer at night, preferably with no moon. Molokai’s slaughterhouse, the Molokai Livestock Cooperative, has its own inspector but its current daytime hours of operation don’t allow for opening at night when deer hunters operate, according to Manaba.
Jack Spruance, general manager of the Livestock Coop, said their hours are currently constrained by the inspector’s union and USDA regulations that require them to maintain consistent hours. They wouldn’t be able to open occasionally at night when needed, for example.
“We’re totally willing to try to [work with hunters],” said Spruance. He added that if the process progresses and they are able to adjust their hours, “we can give up processing time” for domesticated livestock to accommodate deer.
“Potentially [deer] could be an economic engine… there are more deer on Molokai than there are cows,” with potential for a lot of value-added products and marketing to restaurants, he said.
Manaba said another option would be to purchase a mobile slaughter unit, which would allow for inspection and processing of wild game but not compete with the slaughterhouse or require a change to slaughterhouse hours. He said an Oahu inspector could be flown in when needed — but inspectors come at a no small cost. The going rate is $68.52 per hour with four-hour minimum, which does not include transportation or other expenses, according to Manaba.
For Spruance, the inspector is a major factor in the equation.
“Whether you get a mobile unit or go through the slaughterhouse, the challenge is the same — you need the inspector,” he said.
While many Molokai residents grow up hunting, the Maui Axis Deer Harvesting Cooperative requires its hunters to go through training and certification. Requirements include NRA rifle certification, a valid and current Hawaii hunter’s license, a background check, and insurance coverage by the cooperative’s liability policy. A special training manual and regime is being developed for the program. Night shooting also requires a wildlife permit through the Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Manaba said hunters who joined a similar Molokai cooperative would need to follow similar requirements. He said there would also be restrictions on what type of rifle is used.
In its mission of zero waste, MADHC plans to use every part of the animal. Hides can be tanned and sold, entrails donated to farmers for use as compost, bone ground into bone meal and used as a soil amendment, antlers can become jewelry and the waste meat can be made into dog food. MADHC invites entrepreneurs interested in being associative members to contact them about any of these eco-friendly donations and/or business opportunities.
Some meat will go to the hunters and landowners, and at other times MADHC will invite a USDA/FSIS ante-mortem inspector and transport the deer to a recognized USDA registered slaughterhouse where it will be inspected post mortem to assure its safety for human consumption. Inspected meat will also be offered to the public by the cooperative at farmers markets and at a few interested Maui island restaurants and stores.
“These deer are a menace to our farmlands and ranches and cause about a million dollars in damage to crops and property every year,” said Mayor Alan Arakawa in the county release. “The formation of the MADHC is our first step towards controlling this invasive species and turning a pest into a resource.”
On Maui, the cooperative is already in operation. The group extends a warm welcome to any farmer or landowner needing help. For more information about the MADHC, contact Robinson at email@example.com or call (808) 874-1239. On Molokai, ranchers interested in harvesting high numbers of deer or hunters interested in getting certified as shooters can contact Manaba at 646-0853.