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High style restaurant develops brilliantly unorthodox menu item to help Hawai’i with invasive species problem: ‘The flavor of it is very mild’

“It’s not something that we just go out to the grocery store and get.”

"It's not something that we just go out to the grocery store and get."

Photo Credit: iStock

Colorado venison connoisseurs seem happy to help Hawai`i wildlife officials with their axis deer population problem. 

As part of a unique partnership between Denver’s Restaurant Olivia and butcher Maui Nui, the invasive species is being hunted and served up in high style to diners stateside. While eating meat isn’t for everyone, those involved with this project report that it’s crucial to saving Maui from a runaway deer herd that could wreck the island’s ecosystem.  

Without “active management,” the Maui Nui team said in a video clip that the axis population could hit 200,000 within the next two decades. Already at 60,000, the herd is causing a range of problems. To complicate matters, the animals have no natural predators. 

“The deer have devastated pastoral forage land and vegetation already scarce due to ongoing drought conditions,” a report from Hawai`i Gov. Josh Green’s office, declaring the situation an emergency for the sixth time, stated.

The species is distinctive for white spots on a deep orange fur coat. The males grow large antlers, according to the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. 

Unfortunately, the deer can be as prolific as their spots. The Maui-to-menu concept is an example of how we can think outside the box to ethically solve even complex problems such as herd management. Another example is happening in the seas. The invasive lionfish is being harvested for food and a leather source for luxury handbags.

The problem in Maui started in 1868 when axis deer were given (before statehood) as a gift to the king, Westword reported. The population has exploded since then.

To put it in perspective, Westword noted that the Maui Nui team harvested 500,000 pounds of meat in 2022. 

“They don’t have sales goals, only management goals. They are in the business of saving the ecosystem of Maui,” Olivia co-owner Heather Morrison said to Westword. 

If you don’t live in Colorado, you can still buy meat from the Maui Nui website. And the axis makes a nice dish. A 3.5-ounce serving has 107 calories, 21.5 grams of protein, and 1.5 grams of fat, according to Maui Nui. 

“The flavor of it is very mild … it’s not very gamey,” Olivia chef and co-owner Ty Leon said in a clip from 9News in Denver. 

At Olivia, a strip loin of Maui Nui venison with all the fixings (apple soubise, ’nduja vinaigrette, celery root, and hazelnut crumble) is $36, per the menu

It also comes with a side of conservation. Each loin ordered represents progress in the effort to manage Maui’s pesky axis herd while making for a unique menu option. 

“It’s not something that we just go out to the grocery store and get,” Leon said in the clip.

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