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Amid Heavy Rains, Maui County Gets Federal Aid For Drought

Casey Harlow / HPR

WAILUKU — Federal officials have approved Hawaii Gov. David Ige's request to declare a disaster for Maui County amid drought conditions that have persisted for two years.

State officials announced this week that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack approved the request for a secretarial agricultural disaster declaration, the Maui News reported Wednesday.

Even as parts of the county experience heavy rain and flooding this week, other parts remain in some of the worst possible drought conditions. Maui County includes the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai.

Ige declared an emergency proclamation for the county after drought conditions forced starving axis deer into agricultural and developed areas. Ranchers and farmers have suffered significant economic losses and the deer have added to the already difficult drought conditions.

"While the county has been dealing with heavy rain this week, that does not cure the damage caused by the prolonged drought," Ige said in a statement. "The federal drought disaster declaration will allow our farmers and ranchers access to federal aid programs and assist them in recovery efforts."

The declaration makes farms and ranches eligible for federal aid, including emergency loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.

The state Department of Agriculture "is currently reviewing about 60 applications for state grants to assist agricultural operations that have suffered damage caused by axis deer populations intensified by drought in the county," said Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture.

Axis deer, a species native to India presented as a gift from Hong Kong to the king of Hawaii in 1868, have fed hunters and their families in Maui County for generations. But the invasive species are a danger to the islands' ecosystem in several ways.

The deer devour everything in sight and the loss of vegetation leads to erosion and runoff into the ocean that alters coral reef — another important food source.

Options for controlling the population include more hunting, aerial sniping and fencing that protects certain areas.

Maui County recently set aside $1 million to address the problem. A bill last year to allocate another $1 million died in the state Legislature after pushback from residents who feared the deer would be wiped out.

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