HONOLULU - A Maui pilot must make amends for illegally flying axis deer to the Big Island by providing a group trying to eradicate the invasive species there with 500 hours of helicopter flight time - an act of restitution expected to cost him more than $300,000.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang handed down the sentence for Thomas Hauptman on Thursday. He also gave Hauptman a year's probation; he had faced the possibility of up to a year in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Song told the judge that Hauptman's actions to introduce deer to the island may inflict years of ecological damage. He noted state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations have had to take emergency steps to eradicate the deer to prevent them from becoming established.
They're now spending money that could have been used to fight other invasive species, Song said.
"The irresponsible behavior of a few have forever changed the health of Hawaii's environment and economy," Song told Chang.
Still, Song said he didn't think Hauptman would have taken the deer to the Big Island had he known what the consequences of his actions would be. And he said Hauptman is unlikely to repeat what he did.
Chang said Hauptman, who owns the Maui helicopter company Pacific Helicopter Tours, must cover fuel and maintenance costs and pilot wages for the flights being provided to the Big Island Invasive Species Committee. The judge said 500 hours of helicopter flight time will cost Hauptman more than $300,000, while Hauptman said it could cost as much as $500,000.
The committee will use the helicopter time in part to search the island for deer. About one hour of flight time is needed to survey 1,000 acres. Hauptman's defense proposed that he pay restitution by providing the flight time.
"Whatever it takes to get it right, I'm willing to do," Hauptman told Chang during sentencing.
Hauptman last month pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of illegally transporting wildlife. Prosecutors say he flew four axis deer to the Big Island in 2009 as part of an alleged scheme by hunters to establish a deer population there.
Hauptman told The Associated Press before sentencing Thursday that he was being made a scapegoat.
He told the judge he heard that people had been taking deer to the Big Island by boat and that the animals had already been on the island for years. He said he was prosecuted under an obscure law.
Axis deer were introduced to Maui in the 1950s, but prosecutors say the animals didn't exist on the Big Island until Hauptman transported them there.
Three of the deer Hauptman took to the Big Island - one male and two female - were released on a privately owned ranch without the landowner's knowledge in 2009, according to a memo Song submitted to the court. The fourth deer died en route.
The first reported sighting of a deer on the island was made at the same ranch in February 2011. A motion sensor camera verified the presence of the deer three months later. A strike team hired by the Big Island Invasive Species Committee has so far killed three deer - all in a two-mile radius of the release site.
Conservationists, state officials and ranchers worry the deer could harm Big Island forests, farms and ranches if they become established there.
Axis deer populations can increase by an average of 30 percent per year in Hawaii, where the animals have no natural predators. The Big Island Invasive Species Committee estimates a population of one male and two females could explode to 1,000 in 20 years.
On Maui, nine deer became 46,000 deer after 54 years, even though people have been hunting them there.
The committee has so far spent more than $660,000 to eradicate deer. It expects to spend nearly $500,000 more by next September.