Invasive Stewardship: A Culinary Journey to Hawaii’s Big Island

Published 2023-07-18

By Lindsey Browne Davis, MYSTERY RANCH BRAND Ambassador

There are few things I love more than exploring new landscapes through the lens of hunting. What hunting requires – being an observer and a naturalist, and focusing on the details of an ecosystem, allows me to get to know a new place in a more intimate way than I would otherwise. As a hunter, angler, gardener, and forager, I’m fascinated by the ecosystems that people call home and the routines and rituals that get built around food systems in those particular places. Each landscape offers its own cycles of life, unique flora and fauna, and growing seasons to build a rich food-sourcing experience around.

I’d been curious about hunting in the tropical climate of Hawaii for some time. The Hawaiian Islands provide year-round opportunities to hunt game like axis deer, wild pigs, goats, and sheep, alongside unique wildlife management circumstances in that all of these species are invasive, overpopulated and most don’t require tags.

For a Western hunter whose seasons are heavily governed by strict lotteries and limited windows, this has seemed like the perfect way to balance out seasons of harvest, stay practiced in my marksmanship, and hopefully get the opportunity to explore new culinary journeys.

The Hawaiian Islands provide year-round opportunities to hunt game like axis deer, wild pigs, goats, and sheep, alongside unique wildlife management circumstances in that all of these species are invasive, overpopulated and most don’t require tags.

Not originally native to our shores, wild pigs have established themselves as a substantial presence in ecosystems across the contiguous United States and the Hawaiian Islands. The pigs in Hawaii today are descendants of the original pigs brought over by the Polynesians over 800 years ago. They are an important traditional food source for Hawaiians, and were originally dependent on humans for food, as many non-native fruits such as mangoes and guavas that support their populations today hadn’t been introduced yet. With the arrival of Captain James Cook, came a second wave of pigs. This batch was of European descent and released into the wild to make the Polynesian breeds bigger.

For the contiguous US, pigs were first introduced in the 16th century by explorers and fur trappers as a huntable food source. In the 1900s, the Eurasian or Russian wild boar population was further expanded into parts of the US for the purpose of sport hunting. Over time these pigs in combination with escaped farm animals, led to the establishment of wild pig populations across the US.

Much like the Hawaiian boars, the species today is a combination of Eurasian wild boars, escaped domestic pigs, and hybrids of the two. Pig’s ability to survive in new ecosystems and fluidly move between domestic and wild environments is a testament to their adaptability. According to the USDA, wild pigs have been reported in 35 states, with an estimated population of over six million. That is six times the abundance of Elk in North America. Unlike most species, they have no breeding hierarchy and can reproduce up to three times a year with up to eight piglets at a time. This reproduction rate in combination with their adaptability and lack of natural predators, makes them one of the fastest-growing species in the US. On the Big Island of Hawaii, pigs have rooted on over forty percent of the land, having a serious impact on native habitat.

There have been tremendous efforts on both private and public land to trap and eradicate them due to their impact on farmers and ecosystems in both Hawaii and the contiguous U.S. However, the geography and our mixed opinions on management have rendered this nearly impossible. To some, wild pigs are a direct threat to their livelihood. To others, they are a non-native nuisance that destroys fragile native habitats and causes soil erosion. And to others, they are a regenerative food source, a cultural anchor, and a species that ties hunters to purpose in land management.

The European Mouflon, the world’s smallest wild sheep, along with the Hawaiian Ibex, or Spanish Goats that can be found on the Big Island, follows much of the same story: introduced, prolific, lacking natural predators, and hard on native forests through their browsing and bark stripping behaviors.

I journeyed out to the Big Island of Hawaii this Spring, 7 months pregnant and with my husband in tow, to meet up with one of the Big Island’s most well-known residents when it comes to hunting, spearfishing, land management, and conservation: Justin Lee.

MYSTERY RANCH HUNT Ambassador, Justin Lee pointing out game on the hillside.

Justin lives a life fully integrated with his natural surroundings. He hunts these animals sometimes up to three times a week, in addition to spearfishing, living with a garden, and restoring a native dryland forest on the Big Island with his family.

How do people feel about the presence of pigs on the Big Island?

“For Hawaiian’s, the pig is an important part of who we are in culture and in mindset. Problems are inherent, but the Hawaiians believed they were such an important part of our food system that they gave up seats in their canoes for pigs. For generations, this has been our food and protein resource. Every celebration of life, graduation, or wedding – the pig is front and center. Everything revolves around putting a pig in the ground for Kalua pork and making it the center of your ceremony. But you also have environmentalists on the other side who see their presence as having a negative impact on the native bird populations and habitat. At the end of the day, balance is where we need to land. They were brought here for a specific reason, for food, and need to be respected and utilized.”

Does the perception of pigs differ from the perception of feral goats and sheep at all?

“To the true local community, goats get a bad rap for not being great table fare, but they can be if prepared properly. If more people utilized the goat, it would get more respect. How we prepare our game matters for how much it gets respected. When the fruits are in season, the meat becomes more prized because they are fattened on mangoes and guavas. The flavor is amazing. When you eat something like that, you realize – this is why they were brought here.”

What role have invasive species played in your hunting, and your personal and community food system?

“Hunting these species plays a bigger role in my life now than it ever has. When I come home from Elk hunting in the West, there’s no place I’d rather be than walking these fields with my kids. I want my kids to be just as excited about hunting a macadamia nut-fattened pig because it is such a huge part of their diet – 95% of what they eat is something I shot. I grew up celebrating these harvests with my dad, and now being a father, I want my family to have the same experiences. My community of outdoorsmen understands how special it is to not only be able to hunt a big antlered elk, but also be able to hunt these animals 365 days a year and keep both in circulation for trading amongst ourselves. We are all able to share; elk burgers for somebody’s special sausage or sheep jerky.”

How do invasive species play a role in your family’s forest restoration work?

“For a long time, the strategy on the island has been to put up a fence, kill as many ungulates as you can, and call it conservation. With how much damage people have done to the land by bringing in non-native plants and animals, we really must find a balance of everything that is here now.

In our forest restoration work, we work to balance the non-native grasses and plants and don’t want to use pesticides. We lose some natives to non-native ungulates but work to find a functional level. If we removed all the ungulates, then the grasses they feed on would overtake the forests. We look at conservation as a management strategy more than a fence. We move forward incorporating the ungulates so the forest can be balanced.”

With Justin’s guidance, we bow-hunted the hills above the steep sea cliffs. The diversity of the landscape in just a few miles was a wonder – we navigated the open grasslands, ironwood forests, and rocky canyons shaped by the rainfall the island sees on that side. All of the species coexist in this terrain alongside grazing cattle (with the exception of sheep found on the west and more dry side of the island). It felt like hunting a feral barnyard: opportune yet complicated by the many eyes on the lookout for predators.

Lindsey taking straight aim at a herd of goats

The hunting itself is exhilarating and lighthearted. Missed opportunities didn’t last for long as we moved from the knoll to the neighboring canyon, finding animals in every pocket. With Justin’s guidance, I was able to harvest a boar and a goat with my bow. The memory of the scent of guava on the warm wind, as we packed out at sunset, is forever instilled, and I can only hope to have instilled the sentiments of that place and the multigenerational stewardship mindset of Justin and his family in my own little one.

After careful field management under Justin’s guidance and many checked bags home, we got the meat back stateside. Each animal harvested has lent itself to stunning meals not possible with the game I am used to. One, a slow-cooked Hawaiian-style sweet boar roast, and the other, a goat Garam Masala. It’s true what Justin taught us about these animals – if prepared properly, it is amazing table fare, and some of the best game I’ve ever eaten. Reliving these experiences in the field through food at home is one of the best parts of living a life connected to hunting and the exploration of new landscapes.

The goat meal straight out of the kitchen and paired nicely with white rice and bread.

It is hard to deny the beauty of the management relationship between invasive species and hunters — in many cases, we are now their natural predators, and they, a regenerative food source. Wildlife management today requires an open mind when it comes to integrating the complexities of the effects, we’ve had altered landscapes and the species present in our environments. In most cases, we are responsible for the recovery, management, and preservation of our wildlife populations. The ratio of connected habitat to humans means competition among most hunters and game species. However, wild pigs and invasive species present something entirely different — they are abundant and available, and our ecosystems depend on us managing their populations.

The tangy boar meal with some zany pineapple.

Invasive species are a means by which we can preserve the legacy of hunting, bestowing meaning to the hunter and fortifying the active role we have as the tenders of the flora and fauna in our landscapes. They are perhaps a species that connects us more to our historical role as humans than we’ve ever considered and are rich in culinary opportunities!