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The Axis Deer Is Wreaking Havoc on Hawaii's Ecology

The invasive axis deer is causing ecological issues in Hawaii and recently prompted an emergency proclamation from the state's governor.

Written by
Calin Van Paris

It may be decidedly doe-eyed, but the axis deer is causing some real problems in the state of Hawaii—specifically Maui county. The invasive species enjoys a long tenure on the islands, but this year's drought has brought about a potentially insurmountable rise of the spotted mammal.

According to the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife Maui Branch, approximately 60,000 axis deer are currently roaming Maui county, leaving some negative ecological effects in their wake and prompting an emergency proclamation from the state's governor.

The axis deer, also known as the chital or the spotted deer, is native to India. The deer were thought to be brought to the islands as gifts in the late 1800s, and the same species was transported to Texas decades later for use as game meat. Unfortunately, the lack of natural predators in the deer's rehoused regions allows them to propagate at an unregulated rate, the large populations feeding on the natural forage relied on by farmers and their livestock.

Now, with the drought, the deer are eating the ground bare in want of water. "A lot of our water is stored in the mosses in the small plants at ground level and on the trees themselves," Jeff Bagshaw with the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife Maui Branch tells KHON2. This leads to weakened soil and excess runoff that in turn affects the island's already endangered coral reefs.

If left unmanaged, the population of axis deer could triple in the next three decades. As such, locals are getting creative. Some are embracing the overflow of venison as a hyper-local food source, while Governor David Ige's proclamation calls for corralling and culling the deer to achieve sustainable levels. Less aggressive actions, like reinforcing fences and grooming vegetation, are also underway.

As with this summer's influx of the spotted lanternfly, dealing with invasive insects and animals is neither glamorous nor morally enjoyable. But the reality remains that some ecosystems are not equipped to house certain species—and sustainability is nothing if not a study in balance and recalibration.