CATHLAMET — Tuesday morning, some of Wahkiakum County’s endangered Columbian white-tailed deer were quite literally high as a kite.
The 12 sedated deer that sailed over the deer refuge in nets dangling from a red helicopter were part of a one-day effort to use “helicopter hazing” to hasten the relocation of 50 deer.
Since late January, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have been working to trap deer on the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge and move them to a federal preserve near Ridgefield. They fear that a badly eroded dike that separates the refuge from the Columbia River may soon break, inundating the refuge with floodwaters.
Early Tuesday, a crew of more than 50 biologists, volunteers, local high school students and two veterinarians gathered at refuge headquarters to hear helicopter pilot Jim Pope explain the rules of the capture.
The ground crew would wait in silence at strategic points in the woods, Pope told his camouflage-clad audience, while Pope and his two flight assistants would attempt to flush the deer into the open, towards a loosely hung net.
“It’s gonna be really boring initially — get comfortable!” said Pope, who has flown in helicopter animal roundups all over the West.
All morning long, Pope dipped and buzzed over the refuge, skimming the tops of trees and swooping into open meadows.
But the tactic wasn’t working. As a result of the ongoing capture effort, deer had become too wary of humans to run into open meadow, said Jackie Ferrier, who manages the refuge.
Pope even began dive-bombing deer while his two assistants fired “cracker shells” — small devices about the size of a 12-gauge bullet that detonate in the air, creating a frightening boom. The air reverberated with the sound of the shells, but the deer turned away from nets, retreating into the woods instead.
By mid-morning, the pilots switched to a riskier but more efficient capture method — “Net-gunning.”
As Pope and the ground crew worked to push deer into the open, assistants leaned out of the helicopter and fired nets that expanded mid-air like Spiderman’s web and dropped on the deer.
Pope then swooped within inches of the ground, allowing an assistant to leap out and secure the deer. Within minutes, the red Hughes 500D returned, and in one smooth motion the assistant hooked the net to the helicopter and jumped back in. In an instant, the dangling deer — now mildly sedated — were suddenly flying toward a staging ground for transfer to a truck that would take them to Ridgefield.
Work stopped for a while because the flight crew unintentionally trapped a fawn without its mother. Pope and his crew abandoned all other trapping efforts while they combed the refuge in search of the doe, who was captured within the hour. The pair would later be reunited in Ridgefield.
Doug Zimmer, a FWS spokesperson who attended the capture, said the effort was a tremendous success — no animals were killed, and no people or animals were injured, either.
Officials want to finish the relocation effort by April to avoid capturing deer in advance stages of pregnancy. They have captured 30 so far, and officials are still deciding how or even whether to continue the trapping effort.
“It was a very, very successful day. That was a very adept, very professional helicopter crew,” Zimmer said.