HONOLULU – Weeks of slow, soaking rains are helping the grass grow again on the western slopes of Maui and Hawaii islands, giving cattle ranchers hope they may at last escape a punishing drought brought on by years of below-normal rainfall.
But ranchers warn the soil will dry out if rain doesn't continue to fall for the rest of Hawaii's wet season, which lasts through April.
"We're pretty happy with what's happened the last couple months," said Pono von Holt, president of Ponoholo Ranch. "If it can sustain itself over here for the next few more months, I think we'll start working out of a situation that we've been in for a long time."
Hawaii, despite its image as a lush, tropical state, has areas facing the same problem of a multiyear drought as California's agricultural heartland and other large swaths of the West.
For decades, Hawaii's ranches — many of which are on the drier, western sides of the islands — have benefited from rains brought by cold fronts that visit the islands from the west and northwest each winter. But in recent years, many of these cold fronts only got as far as Kauai or maybe Oahu. They bypassed Maui and the Big Island, which are both further south.
Last month, though, a series of cold fronts dropped rain across the entire island chain. Rain gauges on the lower slopes of the Big Island's west side recorded their highest January totals since 2005, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The rain has been so good that ranchers are holding on to calves they were planning to ship to the U.S. mainland for feeding if January and February turned out to be dry, said Alex Franco, president of Maui Cattle Co. and of the Hawaii Cattlemen's Council industry group.
The U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded the drought status of many areas, including Kihei, a tourist resort town on Maui, which is now considered to be under "severe drought" instead of "extreme drought." Many other areas affected by drought have been upgraded to "moderate drought" or "abnormally dry."
Hawaii cattle ranches use about one quarter of the state's 4 million acres, mostly on the upland slopes of Maui and Big Island volcanoes. The $40 million industry produces more than 60,000 calves each year.
Years of weak precipitation have been tough on ranchers.
Ponoholo Ranch, which is on the slopes of Kohala Volcano on the Big Island, has had to reduce its herd of mother cows by about one-quarter to 3,200 as it endured nine years of below-normal rainfall, von Holt said. Before the drought, the ranch had about 4,700 to 5,000 mother cows.
Von Holt said he won't begin adding more cows to the herd until it rains for several more months. He also won't consider the drought over until rainfall at the 11,000-acre ranch returns to at least 80 percent of normal precipitation averaged across a 12-month period.
Von Holt's ranch is part of a rich Hawaii ranching tradition dating to the 1830s, when King Kamehameha III asked Mexican vaqueros, or cowboys, to help round up feral cattle descended from cows and bulls given to the king's family by the British explorer George Vancouver. The vaqueros taught Hawaiians how to ride horses and lasso animals, giving rise to Hawaii cowboys called paniolo.
Franco is similarly careful about the Hawaiian ranching business' prospects, noting the islands have experienced wet months in January and February in recent years only to have them followed by dry weather.
Ranchers will need four or five years of average rainfall to resume operations on the same scale as before the drought, he said.
"We're optimistic but at the same time very cautious as we move forward as we make our production plan and that sort of thing," Franco said.
The paniolo have reason to be hopeful.
Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service's office in Honolulu, said it's likely the islands will continue to above-average amounts of rain for the rest of the winter season.