A helicopter pilot is pleading guilty to illegally flying deer from Maui to the Big Island, shedding light on a mystery that has been bewildering Hawaii: how did axis deer, an animal that can’t swim across the ocean, get to another island?
Neither axis deer nor mouflon sheep are native to Hawaii and don’t have natural predators here. Their presence has damaged fragile native ecosystems and farms on the islands where they’ve become established.
The alleged animal smugglers took the sheep to a Maui hunting ranch, and apparently didn’t release them to the wild. Even so, the sheep’s arrival on Maui for the first time deeply concerns conservationists who fear the animals could escape or give others the idea to bring over more.
“Some of our most endangered dry forest community on Maui would definitely be negatively impacted if sheep got established on Maui. They’re already being impacted by the deer. The sheep would just be one more thing that was contributing to their demise,” said Chuck Chimera, a botanist on Maui involved in efforts to fight invasive species.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Song said helicopter pilot Thomas Leroy Hauptman flew four axis deer, from Maui, where the animals were introduced in the 1950s, to the Big Island where they’re not established. He brought back about a dozen mouflon sheep with him to Maui from the Big Island.
Hauptman on Monday entered a plea of guilty in federal court to one misdemeanor count of illegally transporting wildlife, specifically axis deer in 2009. He could be sentenced to up to a year in prison. His defense suggested that he perform community service by flying 500 hours in his helicopter working for the group fighting to eradicate axis deer from the Big Island, the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.