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It's a Bird! It's a Plane! No, It's a Biologist!

IDAHO FALLS - Wildlife managers use many tools to help them perform their jobs. Among the more romantic, yet dangerous of these are helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft. Right now, all across the state, biologists are flying in helicopters to not only count wildlife, but in some cases herd animals into waiting nets for research purposes. The Idaho Department of Fish & Game itself does not own any aircraft; instead it hires pilots and aircraft. Fixed-wing aircraft are contracted on an individual bid basis; helicopters are arranged through the Office of Aeronautical Safety, a division of the U.S. Department of Interior. The task of using aircraft to manage wildlife might sound like fun, but it's a deadly serious business. Earlier this fall, an Idaho Power biologist and pilot flying in a fixed-wing aircraft disappeared in Hell's Canyon while on a mule deer study flight. Last year there were a total of five natural resource work related helicopter crashes in the state, resulting in the death of one pilot. Aircraft are used for research purposes because they provide biologists with the mobility needed to track wildlife across wide expanses of territory. When animals move onto winter range, biologists are not only able to count animals, but they collect other important information about wildlife activities and habitat. All of this data is then plugged into computer programs designed to model population numbers based on all the information collected. Biologists also use helicopters as beasts of burden, attaching slings and moving big game as part of trapping and transplanting efforts. For the last three years, IDFG has used helicopters as an important part of a fawn survivability research project. The pilots maneuver the helicopters much like a cowboy would use a cutting horse to work cattle. Fawns and females are separated from the wintering herds and are then "pushed" into waiting nets. Once the deer become ensnared, volunteers and IDFG personnel restrain them. The captured animals are measured and weighed before having blood samples drawn and radio collars and ear tags affixed. The animals are then released unharmed and their movements tracked. Some of this radio tracking work is accomplished on the ground; aircraft are used to locate animals that cover large distances. Because work involving aircraft is highly dependent on weather conditions, IDFG staff must be ready to change their plans at a moment's notice, a feat not easily accomplished considering all the logistical planning involved and our highly scheduled society.