Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sheep Capture, Part 2: Net Gunning

Capturing sheep has evolved. Until a few years ago, bighorns were luring into makeshift corrals with hay. That method wasn’t always effective. It depended on weather and managers never knew how many sheep they might catch. There was also the threat of mountain lions attacking sheep in the trap at night before FWPs personnel arrived. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife biologist Quentin Kujala lamented sitting in his pickup watching sheep traps all night in case mountain lions stopped by for a quick snack.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel untangle nets before repacking. Photo was taken in 2005 at the same site used in 2009 (day two) just below Gibson Dam, Sun River, Montana. Sheep taken here in 2005 went to Idaho.

The latest method being used is called “net gunning.” Net gunning requires a crew of three: pilot, a gunner and a mugger. After finding the sheep, the pilot then herds the sheep to a point were the gunner, who is standing on the chopper’s skid, shoots a nylon net that tangles the feet of the animal. The third man, the mugger, leaps from the chopper and puts a blindfold over the bighorn’s eyes. Blindfolds keep bighorns calm much the way blindfolds keep horses calm. He then hogties the bighorn and lashes it in a sort of mesh envelope that is then slung under the helicopter.

The past several years, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has relied on Pathfinder Helicopters of Salt Lake City for net gunning services. The three-man crew this year consisted of pilot, Steve Collins; Gunner, Phil Wright; and Mugger, Ephen Collins, Steve Collins son.

Bighorn lamb still tangled in net after being net-gunned. Blind fold keeps the sheep calm. 2005 photo.

All three are from New Zealand. Both Collins are from Rotorua on the north island, although Steve Collins has a three-year work permit, and wishes to obtain residency. He said, "There is much more wildlife to capture in North American than in New Zealand." Wright is from Haast, which is on the south island. This is Ephan Collins first year as a worker. Steve Collins has been net gunning since 1981, and Wright's net gunning started in 1982.

Before coming to the Sun River area to capture sheep, the Pathfinder crew was in southwestern Montana net gunning moose. Those moose were only checked for physical condition, collared and released. Weather had delayed that sheep capture from 24 Dec until 3 January.

On 2 January, heavy snow, sub-zero temperatures and high winds had closed many highways in the state. Most FWP personnel didn't expect the Pathfinder crew to fly in such conditions, but pilot Collins braved the elements and flew his MDH500 helicopter less than 100 feet above the ground, following U.S. Highway 87 to Augusta, Montana.

New Zealander and pilot Steve Collins gently eases the last of five bighorns to the ground. Collins leans half his body from the chopper to see that none of the sheep are piled on others.

On the night of 2 January, the weather abruptly changed bringing near perfect conditions for sheep capture.

Clear skies and new snow made hunting for bighorns easier. The minus 28 temperature gave additional lift to the chopper's blades and reduced the stress bighorns experience from moderate-to-high temperatures. Nearly non-existent wind made flying easier.

Thirty-two bighorns were captured on the 3rd near the Willow Creek drainage about 18 miles west of Augusta. Two of the sheep had some unknown lesions on their nose and lips and were released. A total of thirty bighorns were loaded into a horse trailer for the Utah trip.
The perfect day was marked by only one mishap.

Sometime during the day, a hard landing had flipped on the helicopter's emergency beacon. A passing commercial airliner picked up the signal and reported it. The Montana aviation people, Montana Highway Patrol and Lewis and Clark Sheriff's Department were all contacted.

The Sheriff's Department put a single engine plane up to find the "downed" helicopter. No one on the capture crew knew anything about it until returning to Augusta late that night.

Pilot Collins coming in with five sheep "daisy-chained" under the chopper. When more than three sheep were hauled, the gunner and mugger had to stay behind, as the chopper didn't have the power to haul three people and five bighorns.

After the emergency, the weather changed yet again.

By morning of the 4th, temperatures moderated a bit to around minus 5, but the wind pickup to over 60 knots. Pilot Collin downplayed the wind's effect on his flying, instead he complained that the wind simply “took” the net when it was fired. That caused many dry runs, and by 3 p.m. it looked as if thirty more bighorns would not be bagged.

Each bighorn that Pathfinder captures cost the State of Utah more than $650. Each bighorn that they do not capture is $650 NOT in Pathfinder's coffers. The thought of a short day must have weighed on the Pathfinder crew, because they would return to the administrative area, load up all their nets, take-off and return with not one, two or three bighorns, but with five daisy-chained underneath. With such a load, the gunner and mugger had to stay behind.

Hauling a single sheep on Day One near Willow Creek, Montana. Mountain on left is Lime Reef. Mountain on right is the south end of Sawtooth Ridge.

Just before dark, 30 sheep had been captured.

After net gunning Montana's sheep, the Pathfinder crew was headed to Ontario, Canada, then to Manitoba, Canada, then British Columbia, Canada, back to Montana and then to Mexico. Animals they were slated to capture ranged from moose, to bighorns, to caribou, to wolves and mule deer.

Steve Collins said that Pathfinder's charges ranged from $400 to $3500 per animal. He said it depended on what animal they were after and how many times those individual animals had been net gunned before. He said that every time an animal is net gunned, it gets smarter. He said, "The worst are wolves. They are the smartest. Wolves that have been caught five times or more never come out of the trees."

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