How an obsession with an invasive species led a Hawaiian couple into a delicious business.
Each night at 10 p.m., around the same time that Maui’s vacationers stumble back to beachside hotels, Jake Muise and his crew of nine guys wake up, eat breakfast (or is it dinner?), and go over the plan. They are allowed to harvest axis deer for only three hours each night, so they review the data before heading out like sprinters off the starting line. Every shot by the designated shooter must be direct to the head—if the animal doesn’t die instantly, they get fined. After each kill, the team moves in to immediately process the animal. Then they repeat—maybe 17 times on a bad night but up to the daily limit of 32.
The harvest helps ranchers on the island control the invasive species, and the meat gets sent to world-class restaurants and savvy consumers all over the country through Maui Nui Venison, the business Jake and his wife, Kuʻulani founded.
The same features of the island that allow the axis deer to flourish also give the meat a clean, mild, and incredible flavor: hundreds of different grasses thriving in healthful volcanic soils and a complete lack of natural predators or even any other large grazing mammals. Like the humans who visit Maui, the axis deer find it a relaxing and gourmet paradise.
“We have the most genetically and geographically isolated forests in the world,” says Kuʻulani. “Which made them incredibly unique but also incredibly vulnerable.” Axis deer were brought to Hawaii in the mid-19th century and to Maui a century later. The only deer that breed year-round, they increase in population by about 30 percent each year. “Axis deer continue to devastate private agricultural land,” described a recent Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources news release. “Their voracious appetites and extreme herd sizes are leaving some landscapes looking more like moonscapes.” The deer overgraze, preventing plant regeneration, so heavy rains create excessive runoff into close-in reefs. “Waters along the south shore of Moloka‘i were chocolate brown, hundreds of feet seaward,” the report continues.
Still, the deer serve a purpose for Hawaiians. Growing up on Moloka‘i, Kuʻulani remembers her father reverently bringing home axis deer and skinning them in their backyard, getting emotional as he explained how it would become their food. Though raised in an incredibly disparate place—the frigid rural far north of Alberta—Jake also grew up relying on wild game for many meals. “Subsistence hunting is a part of who we were,” he says. While he attended the University of Hawaii, returning to Canada for breaks proved pricey and difficult, so a family on Moloka’i adopted him—a practice known as hānai, taking in strangers as family. He felt at home in the hunting culture and relished stockpiling venison during breaks to eat throughout the school year on Oahu.
But just as Jake saw the value of the deer in contrast to the imported and industrialized food system of Honolulu, he saw how drought left motionless deer scattered on the Moloka‘i, and the ways the deer threw the ecosystem out of whack. He focused his seminal business school project on a management plan for axis deer that mimicked one New Zealand used with red stag. “I was completely wrong,” he laughs. “They’re unable to be domesticated or habituated.”
Still, the plight of the axis deer piqued Jake’s interest, and researching them highlighted the difficulty of getting information about the animal. Few organizations had done any research, and he struggled to get those that had to respond. To seem more official, he created the Axis Deer Institute. “I made myself a logo, and then all of a sudden people started answering me.”
The ADI became a hobby after graduating—a side project as he worked in Europe, then moved back to Hawaii. He collected information ravenously, if purposelessly, as his passion for hunting morphed into an obsession with axis deer.
Years later, his research suddenly paid off: someone had introduced axis deer to Hawaii Island. As the only experts on the animal, the ADI—and Jake—landed a contract to find and remove the deer before they overran the Big Island, too.
Every day for three years, he hunted the same four deer in a remote, 90-square-mile area. “It was the most difficult thing,” he says. “Even though you hadn’t seen a deer in seven months, you had to act and think like you would that day.” When he succeeded, word spread, and he soon got calls from ranches in Maui that wanted him to come and kill the deer on their land.
But the USDA wouldn’t let the Muises sell wild harvested meat, and with their subsistence diet upbringings, they reeled at the idea of wasting it. “In Hawaiian culture, what’s centered is balance,” says Kuʻulani. She grew up with the example of the prolific agriculture and aquaculture systems in place on a tiny, remote island, what she calls “A very strict, very organized system of abundance.”
Over the next five years, they used this framework to craft an axis deer harvesting system that met the approval of the USDA. They harvest on private land, where the invasive species is owned by, and the burden of, the landowner, without baiting or penning the animals. They remortgaged their house to buy a mobile slaughterhouse that matches the standard of a brick-and-mortar one, and an inspector and veterinarian from the USDA are always on hand—paid by Maui Nui.
The Muises are careful to call what they now do harvesting, rather than hunting. “I consider hunting something that has fair chase involved. There’s a challenge, and there’s a very specific focus on an individual animal,” Jake explains. “We’re doing everything we can to not be a challenge.” The difference highlights so much of what the goals of their company are—primarily to maintain the balance of the island’s ecosystem.
Without control, the axis deer population on Maui could spin out above 200,000. The Muises know that their small operation can’t stem the exponential growth of the invasive species, but it shows a model for how it could be done carefully, sustainably, and deliciously.