By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Shortly before Christmas 2009, a helicopter carrying four axis deer — three alive, one dead — landed carefully on a Ka‘u ranch.
Its cargo, brought in a metal crate from Maui, was unloaded and replaced with several mouflon sheep for the return trip.
With the duct tape around their legs removed, the surviving ungulates needed little coaching to exit.
Sensing freedom after the inter-island flight, they bounded toward the safety and familiarity of the nearby brush.
For the men involved, that moment marked the start of a new food source for hunters on the Big Island, long frustrated by state efforts to slaughter game animals considered harmful to native plants.
But for the state and federal officials, who would discover their presence in 2011, the prospect of a new invasive species establishing itself here proved concerning, if not frightening.
The south Asian deer, already well established on Maui, Oahu, Lanai and Molokai after being first introduced in 1868, have been a nuisance for ranchers and farmers for generations but have also been prized by hunters.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigation would later trace their Big Island introduction to a hunter from Mountain View, and a rancher and a pilot from Maui who arranged a sheep-for-deer swap between the two islands.
Eager to punish the act, yet unable to declare the deer introduction itself illegal, federal prosecutors successfully convicted the trio last month for possessing game animals without a permit and under a federal law governing interstate commerce, known as the Lacey Act.
Each would be fined and sentenced to their share of community service helping battle invasive species or educate hunters.
Not a harsh sentence, officials believed, for the potential ecological and economical damage the species could cause to the island.
But for Danny Rocha, the Mountain View hunter who helped arrange the transport, justice is hard to find.
The 65-year-old retired iron worker and Vietnam War veteran said he feels unfairly targeted for his role in the deer transport, noting there was no law banning it at the time, and maintains it was meant to provide for hunting on a private ranch rather than islandwide introduction.
“Deer smugglers they called us,” he said. “It was bogus. They were just pulling charges out of a hat.”
Rocha doesn’t mince words when talking about the state’s game management efforts, and points to programs to fence off land or kill sheep and goats to protect native plants as motivation for the transport.
To him, hunters, which he believes should be used to help manage animal populations, are being squeezed out.
“A lot of the things they are doing … has no respect for the people that sustain themselves, whether it’s for food, recreation, cultural beliefs, cultural gathering, nothing,” he said.
“We don’t have nothing left to hunt,” he would later add.
His attorney, John Carroll, said he should be considered a hero.
“For anybody who is a subsistence survivalist in this state owes him a debt of gratitude getting done what he got done,” he said.
The 19,000-acre ranch, Rocha believed, was large enough to host the game animals, providing a hunting source, without affecting the island.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Song, who prosecuted the men, said that turned out not to be the case.
Song said the deer were able to escape the ranch, leading to concerns of their proliferation elsewhere.
“All the fears that they thought of actually happened,” he said.
Hunters hired by the state to eradicate the species from the island have since killed three deer in Ka‘u, reportedly within two miles of their release point.
Rocha disputes the distance claim, and says the deer were killed within the ranch, though he notes its 5-foot tall cattle fences are likely not big enough to contain them.
So far, the state has spent about $200,000 trying to eradicate the deer on the island, said William Aila, state Department of Land and Natural Resources chairman.
Aila said that effort will continue since the state hasn’t been assured that its population, with a 30 percent annual reproduction rate, is gone for good.
The state has received reports of axis deer elsewhere on the island, including Kohala.
Rocha said they had been brought over for hunting by others before, though their population has not been well established.
Aila said the other reports haven’t been confirmed.
“We have to follow up on leads,” he said. “We’re not ready to make the statement that we’ve eradicated deer on Hawaii Island yet.”
Allowing them to be a managed food source on the island, as Rocha would like to see, is not an option, Aila said.
“They are potentially too dangerous to be established on Hawaii Island in terms of economic damage to farms, to ranches, to homes, to golf courses, to everybody,” he said.
Scott Meidell knows that all too well.
The general manager of Haleakala Ranch on Maui said the deer are a constant nuisance. He estimated he loss more than $100,000 due to the deer consuming grazing land in 2010 alone.
The problem becomes exasperated during times of drought.
“They huddle up and we’ve seen herds of 800 to 1,000 move very slowly over a land and mechanically destroy or eating whatever’s left,” he said.
Hunting, particularly night hunting authorized by DLNR, helps thin the herds, but it can never be enough to solve the problem, Meidell said.
“We’re certainly taking out higher numbers,” he said. “Whether or not we’re making a dent in their population is uncertain at this time.”
Meidell said he has spoken with ranchers on the Big Island concerned over their introduction. Eradication is the best solution, he said, “without a doubt.”
Aila said eradication efforts on Maui and other islands remains unfeasible, due to their numbers and opposition from hunters.
Teya Penninman, manager of the Maui Invasive Species Committee, said a working group has been formed involving ranchers, farmers and other residents to better manage the species.
It will develop a long-term plan, with input from the community, she said, but it will likely not include eradication.
But she believes the Big Island should give it a try while it can.
“If you have a chance to stop a species that’s been shown to be highly damaging … before it gets established, you are going to save a lot of money,” Penninman said.
Rocha said he doesn’t believe eradication is the answer. He thinks the state is missing an opportunity to meet in the middle with hunters, who could use the deer as a food source while keeping its population in check.
The mistake on Maui, he said, was not opening it up to hunting sooner.
“The hunters maintain the balance,” Rocha said. “You accept hunting when it’s needed and you stop hunting when you’re running out of animals.”
Still, he said he’s happy doing his 100 hours of community service educating hunters on sustainable hunting methods.
“Better education for the youth might be good for us in the long term,” Rocha said.
Ken Foote, Fish and Wildlife spokesman, said an investigation into the introduction of axis deer on the island is ongoing.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com