An uncovered plan to smuggle non-native deer and sheep between Maui and the Big Island has conservationists worried that the foiled plot could inspire more illegal wildlife transport schemes.

A Maui pilot executed part of the scheme in 2009 when he transported four axis deer from Maui to the Big Island and moved about a dozen Big Island sheep to a Maui hunting ranch. The pilot has pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of illegal transport of wildlife. He faces up to one year in prison.

The purpose of the animal swap was to provide new populations of game for hunters. The deer were released into the wild on the Big Island, where they have no natural predators. The sheep, however, are being kept enclosed on a Maui hunting farm.

The addition of axis deer and mouflon sheep — the animals involved in the illegal transport — to islands where they previously did not exist has already begun to damage fragile, native ecosystems.

“Some of our most endangered dry forest community on Maui would definitely be negatively impacted if sheep got established on Maui,” said Chuck Chimera, a botanist on Maui. “They’re already being impacted by the deer. The sheep would just be one more thing that was contributing to their demise.”

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