HONOLULU - A federal judge sentenced two Hawaii hunters to community service on Monday after an investigation into the interisland smuggling of axis deer by helicopter.
Neither man was charged with the smuggling itself, but prosecutors said their actions introduced axis deer to the Big Island for the first time and harmed the environment as a result.
Daniel Rocha of Mountain View on the Big Island was sentenced to 100 hours of community service for having sheep in his possession without a permit. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi also ordered Rocha to pay a $1,000 fine.
Puglisi ordered Jeffrey Grundhauser to perform 100 hours of community service for taking an unlicensed hunter to shoot game animals on his ranch in Upcountry Maui. Grundhauser must also pay a $15,000 fine and will be on probation for one year.
The deer were introduced to the Big Island as part of a trade in December 2009.
Rocha provided Grundhauser's hunting ranch with about a dozen mouflon sheep that he raised at his small farm in Mountain View. In exchange, Grundhauser gave Rocha four axis deer from Maui, three of which Rocha released on a private ranch on the Big Island. (One deer died en route.)
The animals were taken between the islands by Maui helicopter pilot Thomas Hauptman. A federal judge last month sentenced Hauptman to help the Big Island organization trying to eradicate deer by providing the group with 500 hours of flight time.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service have confiscated all the sheep taken to Maui. The Big Island Invasive Species Committee has so far killed three deer within a two-mile radius of where Rocha released the deer, and has sighted more.
Conservationists, state officials and ranchers worry the deer could harm Big Island forests, farms and ranches if they become established there. Deer don't have any natural predators in Hawaii, and the animals have caused problems on islands where they already have become established.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Song said Rocha released the deer because he believed it was his right to hunt and provide for his family. But he said Rocha failed to understand there are rules and laws to protect the environment and community, and didn't have the resources to contain the deer.
He said prosecutors brought the case before the court to deter others from similarly transporting and selling wildlife.
"I hope the message gets to the people of Hawaii, and the people doing these things, that U.S. attorneys are serious about prosecuting cases like this," Song told the judge.
Rocha told the judge he wouldn't have done what he did if he knew it was illegal. He said hunters have a right to gather food, but there aren't many game animals left on the Big Island for them to hunt.
"I did what I did to help hunters," he said.
Song and Rocha's attorney still need to determine where Rocha will perform his community service.
Christy Martin, a spokeswoman for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, said the sentence wasn't commensurate with the serious and costly nature of Rocha's act.
"I am worried about the message that has been sent: that you can claim ignorance of the law and get off with a $1,000 fine and community service," she said after the sentencing hearing.
Song said Grundhauser was motivated by money and wanted to enrich his hunting ranch. But he noted Grundhauser was remorseful and wouldn't have done what he did if he knew how great the public outcry would be.
He also noted Grundhauser cooperated with investigators, and authorities wouldn't have been able to solidify their case without his help.
Grundhauser told the judge he takes responsibility for taking an unlicensed hunter - an undercover Fish and Wildlife Service investigator - on a hunt at his ranch. He said it wouldn't happen again.
He also said he didn't know it was illegal to transport wildlife.
"I love Hawaii and I would never do anything to harm it," he told Puglisi.
Grundhauser will perform his community service by working for the Maui Invasive Species Committee.