Still Gold in Them Thar Hills?
Hawai‘i’s first cattle—six cows and a bull—arrived in the islands in 1793, a gift to King Kamehameha I from Captain George Vancouver. By the mid-1800s, Hawai‘i was shipping boatloads of cattle to California to feed hungry miners during the Gold Rush.
But ranching has never been easy.
Greg Friel, a lifelong cattleman and a member of the Paniolo Hall of Fame, oversees livestock operations for family-owned Haleakala Ranch, whose five generations of paniolo (cowboys) have wrangled cattle since 1888. “Ranching has always had challenges, but was economical till the seventies and eighties,” Friel says. That’s when ranchers started facing increasing competition for land and resources. “The cost of shipping in feed got too expensive; that’s why Haleakala Dairy closed.” At the same time, Friel adds, the influx of invasive species—animals like axis deer, and aggressive weeds such as wattle and gorse—has made it harder for ranches to maintain forages.
Scott Meidel, Haleakala Ranch’s executive vice president of real estate and land management, calls gorse the worst of the invasives, “a habitat-changing weed. In Scotland, it’s manicured and used as a hedge. It was released here around the turn of the twentieth century, and has become our kudzu.” Like kudzu, gorse outcompetes grasses and native plants alike, and the thorny shrub has resisted eradication attempts by both government and landowners. One of the most effective ways to combat it, Meidel says, is grazing cattle. “We have a forty-inch drum shredder that can take down gorse the size of this building. But it flowers year-round. Without grazing, you’d have to mow the mountain.”