HONOLULU - 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?
But now federal authorities say the people behind the scheme also took several mouflon sheep from the Big Island and flew them to Maui.
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 into the wild. Even so, the sheep's arrival on Maui for the first time deeply concerns conservationists who fear that 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.
Hauptman's attorney didn't immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Song said Hauptman was the courier, and not the mastermind.
The owner of the Maui ranch where the sheep were taken, Jeffrey Scott Grundhauser, is scheduled to appear in court Thursday. He's charged with one misdemeanor count of selling wildlife - axis deer and mouflon sheep - without the proper permit. He also faces up to one year in prison.
Grundhauser's attorney didn't return a message seeking comment.
A September 2010 article in Hawaii Business magazine reported that Grundhauser was keeping his ranch afloat by taking 50 to 60 people on axis deer hunting tours on his property in Kula each year. Grundhauser charged $1,250 for two days of guide services, meals and the opportunity to kill up to three deer, the magazine said.
Song said federal officials are investigating other individuals in the case.
Axis deer are native to India. They don't have natural predators in Hawaii, so the population has exploded on islands where they've become established. A Maui County survey estimated that the animals caused $1 million in damage for farmers, ranchers and resorts over the past two years.
Conservationists worry the species could wreak similar havoc on the Big Island if they became established there. Officials believe that about 100 axis deer live on the Big Island now because of efforts by the accused and others to bring deer there.
Mouflon sheep are a hybrid of two sheep species introduced to Hawaii: feral sheep and mouflon sheep native to Corsica and Sardinia off the coast of Italy.
The hybrid sheep are one reason the population of the endangered palila, a yellow-crowned songbird that lives on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island, is crashing. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2010 estimated that only about 1,200 palila birds remained, down by 75 percent from 2003, when there were an estimated 4,400 of the birds.
Grazing sheep eat and trample on the mamane trees the birds rely on for food.
While the palila bird doesn't live on Maui, the island does have mamane and other native forests that would be vulnerable if the sheep became established on that island.
Earl Campbell, assistant field supervisor for U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the introduction of sheep, deer and other hoofed animals to Hawaii is a significant factor for why Hawaii has so many species listed as endangered or threatened.
The state is home to 421 endangered and 16 threatened plants and animals, prompting some to call it "the endangered species capital of the world."
"I think it's very unfortunate that individuals can potentially cause such great environmental harm by moving these species between sites," Campbell said.
Trae Menard, the Nature Conservancy in Hawaii's forest conservation director, said that introducing such animals to the islands damages the economy, because they tear through forests holding the water Hawaii relies on for drinking and farming.
"The more these animals are allowed to damage the forest, over time, the less water we're going to have," Menard said. "It's something to think about when we introduce these animals to new islands - that could be jeopardizing the future of our economy and our ability to sustain ourselves in the islands."