It’s normally pitch black outside when Jonathan Sprague gets up for a hunting day on Lanai. He then fills his thermos with coffee and heads out the door to his truck for a 45-minute or hour-and-a-half drive, depending on whether he’s hunting by archery or rifle. When he finally arrives, he posts up on a rock.
As he finishes his coffee, he watches the sunrise over Haleakala in the distance. If it’s a clear day, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on Hawaii Island are backlit. During wintertime, humpback whales can be heard in the distance, he said.
As daylight breaks, mouflon sheep or axis deer start to traverse into his range. You can imagine what happens next.
Sprague wraps up at around 10 a.m. when the heat of the day sets in. He’ll head into Lanai City to grab breakfast or if he was hunting in a more remote area, he’ll swim or nap by the beach until the late afternoon. Then it’s time for the evening hunt. Sprague will process the meat he hunted and it’ll be consumed by his family, friends and neighbors.
This is typical life for many of the residents of Lanai, one of the smallest inhabitable islands in Hawaii. The island, which many tourists may never witness, spans only 140 square miles.
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With about two-thirds of the island actively hunted throughout the course of the year, community hunting is a large part of Lanai’s heritage – and the ancient Native Hawaiian tradition of living sustainably off the land and sea. It’s also how the residents continue to protect the health of their island home. Even non-residents make the trek to participate in the small island’s special hunting opportunities, including many from the other Hawaiian islands and about 250 deer hunters and 150 mouflon hunters from elsewhere.
“We’re super isolated, super rural,” Sprague, who is the director of conservation for land and resource company Pulama Lanai, said. “Sharing food is a huge part of Hawaiian culture and the ability to share and share as can. Basically, everyone has something extra to share around.”
Life on Lanai looks quite different from life in urban Honolulu. For starters, there are only three paved roads, two small grocery stores and one gas station to serve its 3,100 or so residents. A sole movie theater offers two titles to pick from.
Most people get meat from their neighbors who hunt and have extra meat, not the store. (In fact, Sprague said the stores don’t typically even carry meat unless a special event, like a school fundraiser, calls for it.)
“It reinforces the fabric of your community,” he added. “These are your neighbors and people you see every day. It really builds that trust and respect.”
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How does hunting protect the environment?
On an island like Lanai, sustainable food gathering is critical for food security and ensuring the island’s resources are taken care of for future generations. Hawaii imports nearly 80% of its food, which costs the state over $3 billion – a very different image from when ancient Native Hawaiians lived self-sufficiently before Western contact.
“It’s a method of gathering and providing for your family,” said Jay Ballesteros, Lanai Archery & Shooting Range Manager. “A lot of people on Lanai, besides hunting, believe in gardening and sustainable gathering in the ocean, like netting and the fishing pole.”
Ballestros, a Lanai native, started shooting and archery in middle school. He now goes hunting with his two sons and daughter on a regular basis.
“Coming from a small ʻaina (island) like this, archery was a big thing even till today because of the sustainable gathering on Lanai through archery, hunting and doing our part as a community in helping to call down those (deer) numbers,” he said.
He’s talking about axis deer, which were brought to Hawaii from India in the 1890s as a gift to King Kamehameha V. The invasive species are found predominantly in Maui County, which includes Molokai, Maui and Lanai. In a places like Hawaii, where there are no natural predators and year-round pleasant weather, deer and mouflon sheep (another prey) have populated at booming rates.
For decades, the invasive deer and sheep have been known to mercilessly destroy Hawaii’s vegetation in their grazing path. They strip bark and damage native and agricultural crops. Even certain fences don’t stop them – axis deer are even known to jump up to 8 feet over fences. The impact of these non-native animals hurt native species: During droughts, mouflon sheep damage māmane tree saplings, which means less shelter and protection for native birds.
As a result of overgrazing from the deer and sheep, Lanai faces “erosion rates that are so extreme,” Sprague said. That erosion allows more runoff into the ocean, which harms coral reefs.
The main way to keep the deer in check is through what Ballestros and Sprague do: hunt. Between Aug. 2021 and Feb. 2022, 485 axis deer and 232 mouflons were hunted, according to the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center.
How can people hunt on Lanai?
When it comes to hunting, Lanai is unique compared to the rest of Hawaii. Residents of Lanai are supported in their hunts. At no cost, they can get archery permits with Pulama Lanai and go on stewardship hunts six days a week for free with the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center.
- For non-Lanai resident hunters, they need to enter a lottery to hunt in the state’s only public hunting area spanning 32,000 acres.
- Hunters get assigned a day and season they can go and hunt as part of its management.
“We want to make sure we can provide the opportunity on public lands,” said Jason Misaki, Oahu Wildlife Program Manager for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
People can also pay to go on guided hunts with Pulama Lanai on its 5,000-acre managed hunting area or with outfitter Pineapple Brothers and its 7,000 acres.
Most hunters who enter the lottery live on other Hawaii islands but about 250 deer hunters and 150 mouflon hunters are non-Hawaii residents making the trek, Misaki said.
When travel halted during the pandemic, controlling the deer and sheep population was dependent on only Lanai-based hunters, Ballestros said.
“COVID really highlighted how tenuous our food supply is,” Sprague said. “At the same time, literally the topsoil of this island – the heart and soil of this island – used to be healthy and tons of that have washed off because these animals have not been managed. It’s a primary challenge for life on an island.”
At the Lanai Archery & Shooting Range, which is managed by the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, visitors can get a taste of Lanai hunting culture by trying their hand at an archery course or shooting skeet or pistols with guidance from instructors who are also real hunters.
“Archery hunting is really, really challenging,” Ballestro said. There are few exercises that mimic the movement and strength required for archery. Pulling the bow back while keeping the arrow in place is hard enough, and factoring in any obstacles, distance and wind add another layer of difficulty.
“Guests are pretty amazed,” he said. “Especially coming from these big cities, they don’t engage in hunting and the reasons why conservation and hunting are so important, so we can talk about the situation in Hawaii.”
Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at email@example.com