The trouble with goats
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“It looks like an anthill, swarming with goats,” said teen Kilinahe Grace, resident of the Kailapa community in Kawaihae, describing the overpopulation of feral goats in neighboring Honokoa Gulch. “There are over 200 animals in one herd.”
Goat history: from introduction to overpopulation
The presence of goats in Hawaii dates back to an introduction by Captain Cook in 1778, with the intention of establishing a population that could be used as a food source for subsequent voyages. Goats were an excellent choice at that time, because they reproduce quickly and can adapt to almost every environment in Hawaii.
There are no historic records of goat population numbers from the early 19th century, but researchers can estimate the population using records of exported goat skins. In 1850, about 72 years after their introduction, 26,519 goat skins were exported.
Controlling feral goats in Hawaii has always been a challenge. About 85 years ago, managers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park became concerned that goats were destroying native vegetation and introducing non-native weeds. In 1927, they estimated a population of about 15,000 animals in the park. Over the next 43 years, from 1927 to 1970, citizen hunters and park staff killed 70,000 goats, but when resurveyed, discovered that the population had not changed. There were still 15,000 goats.
Currently, the goat population in the park is very small. Managers changed their game plan in the 1980’s, and chose to used Ceasar’s strategy, “Divide and conquer.” By constructing a perimeter fence, and hunting within smaller contained units, they were able to reduce the goat numbers to what they are today.
Goats in North Hawaii: a threat to land, ocean, and communities
“We want to plant native species in our community park, but without a fence around it, the goats would eat up everything,” said Maha Kanealii, Kailapa resident.
The presence of goats in the Kailapa community is more than just a nuisance. Goats are a hazard at night on the road, increase costs for residents who want to plant a garden, and become a hygiene issue for the planned community playground, said Kalikolehua Grace.
“Goats are voracious browsers. They don’t just graze, they also eat leaves and bark of other vegetation too,” said Cody Dwight, Kohala Watershed Partnership’s field crew leader.
“The goats eat almost every kind of plant. Their impact on these sensitive dry habitats, especially during the ongoing drought, creates barren ground, which leads to erosion, and sedimentation of coral reefs,” said Dwight.
Dwight and crew have been working with ranching partners since 2009 to reduce the environmental impacts of feral goats on the Kawaihae watershed and downslope coral reef habitats. Following the successful precedent of goat control in the National Park, they upgraded 18 miles of cattle fencing with hog wire to restrict goat movements, then trapped and removed moe than 700 goats from a 6,600 acre area.
“More than eight years of drought in Kohala has compounded the problem,” said Pono von Holt, owner of Ponoholo Ranch in North Kohala. “Dry weather limits the amount of food resources for the wild goats, and concentrates them in areas like Honokoa gulch, where there are water and vegetation.”
Von Holt grew up at Kahua Ranch, and has a lifetime of experience to explain the current goat overpopulation along the leeward Kohala coast.
“In the 1930’s through the 1950’s, there was a significant financial input into improving the land for cattle. At that time, the land was much less developed, and cowboys were encouraged to hunt goats to reduce their impact on cattle forage,” said von Holt.
Over the past 40 years since Akoni Pule highway was built, Kohala Ranch, Kohala Estates and the Kailapa homesteads have been developed. Because of these changes in land use, the goat population has been concentrated into areas with fewer humans, said von Holt. They were pushed toward Kawaihae to the south and Mahukona to the north. Because the land is more open and flat towards Hawi, it was easier to shoot them in the north, and the population seems to be under control. When the watershed partnership restricted the goats’ use of the Kawaihae watershed, the herds were once again squeezed, this time into the area between Kohala Ranch and the new fence at Kawaihae, he said.
“Honokoa Gulch is the refuge for them,” he added.
Utilize or euthanize?
The debate over management of feral animals populations across the island centers on the balance between maintaining a food resource for island families and sustaining healthy ecosystems.
Even though the current Department of Hawaiian Home Lands policy prohibits hunting or trapping of wild animals, the Kailapa homesteaders hope to find a way to use the goats as a resource to benefit their community in the future.
“We hope to reduce the population, and contain the goats into one area. Then we can use them for food or sell them to fund the community association,” said Kanealii. “We need to find a way to use the goats as an economic benefit to the community, without destroying the environment,” he said.
“Although many people think that goat is not good to eat, there are ways to prepare it that make it taste better. You need to soak it in brine for 3-4 days, then cook it slowly. It becomes very tender, and not gamey,” said Kalani Grace.
“We cannot just let the goats roam free,” said Dwight. “Without management, the goats compete with the cattle for food, and because they aren’t rotated like cattle are, the vegetation never has a chance to recover,” he said.
“During this drought, every drop of water is critical. With no vegetation, we have no buffer against the erosion and sedimentation that destroy coral reefs,” said Dwight.
“We need to educate people that 500-600 goats in one area is a problem,” said von Holt. “We need to get control of them.”