The pulsating beat of the helicopter blades broke the silence of the crisp, fall morning. Sweeping in wide arcs over fields near Bug Point, southwest of Dove Creek, the chopper headed toward canyons filled with pinyon pines and elk.
Suddenly, the aircraft turned, moving from the canyon to a recently harvested wheat field. Ahead of it, a small herd of elk broke from the trees, sprinting across the field, trying to elude the mechanical predator.
The helicopter continued to push, riding up behind the large ungulates. With a dull boom, a shot was fired and an elk was down. But rather than shooting lead, the gun aimed from the helicopter launched a giant net, which entangled the animal and forced it into the soft dirt of the field.
It is called net-gunning — a wildlife capture technique designed to give biologists a chance to gather data on animals. The operation near Dove Creek, completed Oct. 11-12, was part of a three-year, $275,000 research project designed to help reduce agricultural damage suffered by sunflower producers in Southwest Colorado.
The goal of the local operation, led by Colorado Parks and Wildlife District Wildlife Manager Matt Hammond and parks and wildlife mammals research biologist Heather Johnson, was to gather 20 deer and 20 elk, fitting each with satellite-telemetry collars to monitor herd movement.
“The collars store thousands of data points,” Johnson said Oct. 11 while monitoring the movements of the helicopter through binoculars. “We are going to use the data to create maps of the movements of the herds so we can see and understand the seasonal migration patterns of the resident herds.”
Since sunflowers found their way into the agriculture in Southwest Colorado roughly four years ago, farmers have been struggling with heavy impacts of deer and elk damage in their fields. Parks and wildlife has paid nearly $500,000 a year in compensation for farmers who have lost crops to wildlife.
“So much money is being spent each year to reimburse farmers who have suffered game damage,” Johnson said.
In addition to reimbursement payments, parks and wildlife has utilized kill permits and various scare tactics to try and gain some advantage over the marauding herds. The new project is designed to find a permanent solution to the problem.
“This game damage project was set up to look for other solutions for game damage on private lands,” Johnson said. “We are testing different fencing in the area and working with the collars to find out where the herds are going so we know what areas to watch. We are really trying to find better management tools to use so we don’t have to issue kill permits or set pyrotechnics in fields. We want to find something that works for the farmers and the animals.”
The capture project a few weeks ago required many hands. Parks and wildlife hired Alaska-based Quicksilver Air Inc. to provide the most important component of operation. The Quicksilver team included owner and pilot Rick Swisher, along with crew members Jace Clark and Mark Keech.
As Swisher would guide the McDonald Doughlas 500D aircraft low over a field, a crew member would brace himself outside the door of the helicopter, taking aim with a rifle fitted with a net. The net is similar to what you might see on a soccer goal, but smaller. Once the crew member pulled the trigger and the net was in place over an animal, Keech would leap from the chopper and subdue — “mug” — the animal with a blindfold and hobbles. Johnson and Hammond then raced through the field to reach the animal and help Clark and Keech gather data.
No tranquilizers or drugs of any kind were administered during the capture.
“We think the fewer drugs we can use the better,” Johnson said. “Without the tranquilizers, they are captured, handled and released very, very quickly. There also isn’t any transportation of the animal, so they are released into the very same area where we found them.”
An ideal capture can take less than 15 minutes from the time the net falls on the animal to the point the animal is released to the herd. Injury is rare, happening in less than 2 percent of captures, Johnson said. During the period when measurements are being taken, the crew handled the elk with utmost care and concern.
When the first elk was captured Oct. 12, Johnson gently stroked the neck of the 3-year-old cow elk, which was lying on its side. She murmured quietly to the animal while parks and wildlife District Wildlife Manager Matt Hammond and Mark Keech with Quicksilver Air gathered data.
“There’s not much wear on the lower teeth at all,” Johnson said, spreading the lips of the large ungulate. “She’s pretty young.”
With tape measures and a thermometer, Hammond, Keech and Johnson made quick work of collecting necessary data, including chest girth, length, neck girth, hind foot measurement and a temperature reading.
Keech pulled a white collar from his backpack and began fitting it for the elk.
“Holy cow,” he said, after judging the initial fit. “She has a small neck. We are going to have to punch some holes in this thing.”
The collars, produced by Telonics, are a thick, white leather strap roughly 2 inches wide. Each collar is fitted with a Global Positioning System that will upload location data to a satellite numerous times throughout the day.
After adjusting the collar, Keech fit the device to the elk’s neck. Just 10 minutes after capture, the group was satisfied with their work. The blindfold was removed from the elk’s eyes, and the hobbles were quickly pulled away. With a giant leap, the cow elk bounded away, eager to rejoin her herd.
October’s project saw 20 deer and eight elk collared for research purposes. For two years, the collars will collect data that will later be used to determine more effective management tools for the area.
While usually effective, net-gunning and collaring operations are expensive. Johnson said. Wildlife capture companies such as Quicksilver Air can charge anything from $500 an animal to $1,600 per hour for their services and collars run roughly $3,000 a piece.
“This isn’t necessarily a cheap project,” Johnson said. “But we believe this is our best chance at find success in this area with herd management.”
The project is in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Colorado Habitat Partnership Program Council and the Montelores Habitat Partnership Program.
Despite parks and wildlife’s desire to find mutually beneficial solutions for animals and people, the capture operation was not entirely without controversy. Dove Creek County Commissioner Julie Kibel said more than 30 area residents called her office upset about the low-flying aircraft and the disturbance of the herds, which occurred just a few days before the start of first rifle season.
“People really felt a lot of their preseason spotting went to waste,” Kibel said. “Parks and wildlife came in and disturbed the animals and there are a lot fewer animals present in the area now because of that activity.”
During the gather, Hammond said he understood concern with the interaction of the gather and the hunting season, but the timing of the gather was due to good conditions on the ground, a small window of opportunity with the animals and scheduling with Quicksilver. Fall gathers are best due to cooler temperatures and the absence of young animals but also introduce complications due to numerous hunting seasons.
“We really only have a narrow two-and-a-half week window to do gathers of this nature here,” Hammond said.
Despite discontent with the process, Kibel said most Dove Creek residents are very supportive of the overall project.
“It is very valuable,” she said. “I think the first year the sunflowers were a crop farmers lost something like 35 to 40 percent to the deer and elk. This is valuable research to help understand what is going on and what we can do to find better solutions for everyone.”
Hammond said the entire goal of the project is to find a way for resident elk and deer herds to coexist with farmers and ranchers in such a way that the animals are valued and the crops are protected.
“We need to find a happy medium,” he said. “We don’t want to see game damage, but we also don’t want to see the kill permits being used so heavily. The farmers want to find a way to protect their crops and their herds. We want to help.”
Reach Kimberly Benedict at email@example.com.