The general big game hunting seasons are over, this means the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will be able to get out and do some of their population study work.
As the winter snows start to push deer and elk onto their winter ranges, Fish and Game has begun getting ready for management activities that rely on helicopters. Sometimes helicopters will be used to count wildlife, other times they will be used almost like a cowboy's cutting horse to select animals to be driven into waiting nets.
To get a bird's eye view for monitoring populations of deer and elk, Fish and Game relies on rented airships, mainly helicopters.
"Many people do not realize that Fish and Game doesn't own a single helicopter or plane," Fish and Game spokesman Gregg Losinski said. "All our flying is done using aircraft contracted through OAS, the Office of Aeronautical Services in Boise."
Fish and Game uses various types of aircraft for tasks, such as big game aerial surveys and animal trapping for research. While Fish and Game flies year-round, most projects take place during the winter when animals move out into the open on winter range.
Because wildlife management related activities require low-level flights - at altitudes under 500 feet - that often draw public attention, it is Fish and Game policy to inform the public when such activities are scheduled. Scheduled is the operative word, because a variety of factors must come together for a flight to occur. Weather conditions and availability of aircraft can change plans at a moment's notice.
Because many operations, such as mule deer trapping which are part of the ongoing Mule Deer Initiative, require extensive ground preparation and volunteer support, the fickle nature of flight logistics can become a challenge for wildlife managers.
Hiring qualified pilots and aircraft does not come cheap, but it is part of the type of monitoring and trapping that Fish and Game must do for the benefit of wildlife and hunters.
"Because budgets are tight, Fish and Game will use less hired helicopter time and instead use drop nets and walk-in clover traps to catch deer so that they can be studied, radio collared and released," Regional Wildlife Manager Daryl Meints said.
Adult doe and fawn survival are two important components that biologists use to help set seasons and controlled hunt permit levels.
Because wildlife flights involve working at low altitudes and in less than perfect weather conditions, the work is not without risks. Seven years ago, a crash in the Clearwater Region claimed the life of Wildlife Research Biologist Michael Gratson and his hired pilot.
Since that time, Fish and Game has restructured policies and procedures to reduce the chance of incidents.