SOUTHWEST OF DOVE CREEK
T he pulsating beat of the helicopter blades broke the silence of the crisp, fall morning. Ahead of it, a small herd of elk broke from the trees, sprinting across the field, trying to elude the mechanical predator.
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 about animals. The operation near Dove Creek last month 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 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 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 commercial sunflower cultivation began in Southwest Colorado about four years ago, farmers have been struggling with deer and elk damaging 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, the agency has used kill permits and various scare tactics to try and gain some advantage over the marauding herds.
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 dont have to issue kill permits or set pyrotechnics in fields. We want to find something that works for the farmers and the animals, Johnson said.
Parks and Wildlife contracted Alaska-based Quicksilver Air Inc. for the operation. While pilot Rick Swisher flew the helicopter 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 one might see on a soccer goal but smaller. Once the animal was netted, crew member Mark Keech leaped from the chopper and subdued the animal with a blindfold and hobbles.
Johnson and Hammond then raced through the field to reach the animal and help crew member Jace 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.
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, Johnson gently stroked the neck of the 3-year-old cow elk and spoke softly to it.
Theres not much wear on the lower teeth at all, Johnson said, spreading the lips of the large ungulate. Shes pretty young.
Data collected includes 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 about 2 inches wide. Each collar is fitted with a GPS that will upload location data to a satellite numerous times throughout the day.
After adjusting the collar, Keech fit the device to the elks neck. Just 10 minutes after capture, the group was satisfied with their work.
The blindfold was removed from the elks eyes, and the hobbles were quickly pulled away.
With a giant leap, the cow elk bounded away.
Octobers project saw 20 deer and eight elk collared for research purposes. For two years, the collars will collect data.
Best chance for success
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 cost about $3,000 apiece.
This isnt necessarily a cheap project, Johnson said. But we believe this is our best chance at finding success in this area with herd management.
The project is in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agricultures National Wildlife Research Center, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Colorado Habitat Partnership Program Council and the Montelores Habitat Partnership Program.
The capture operation was not entirely without controversy. Dolores 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.
Hammond said the timing of the gather was related to good conditions on the ground.
We really only have a narrow 2½-week window to do gathers of this nature here, Hammond said.
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.
Hammond said the goal was for the animals and farmers to coexist.
We dont want to see game damage, but we also dont want to see the kill permits being used so heavily, he said. The farmers want to find a way to protect their crops and their herds. We want to help.