‘Net-gunning’ useful in preventing harm during research

This photograph of scrambling elk was taken by Native Range Capture Services, a helicopter-based wildlife capture service often used by wildlife agencies across the West. Helicopter net-gunning has proven effective in reducing mortality and trauma when capturing wildlife for research.

The capture of wild animals is one of the most exciting and most difficult part of any research project.

Among the preferred methods for capturing wild big- game is “net-gunning,” which involves catching the animal in a large net launched from a helicopter.

A skilled and well-rehearsed helicopter crew can capture, immobilize and release unharmed four-legged targets ranging from coyotes to bison.

Once an animal is captured and blindfolded, researchers are able to record a variety of measurements — blood samples,body condition, weight, age and sex — before placing a GPS or radio-collar on the animal just prior to release.

“Net-gunning is far less stressful to the animal than immobilizing drugs,” said Brad Petch, Northwest Region senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“It is challenging work, especially for the helicopter crews, but it allows us to gather vital information efficiently with the added benefit of significantly reducing inadvertent mortality,” he said.

Parks and Wildlife Big-game Coordinator Andy Holland said capture operations using aircraft results in a wider distribution of collared animals than is possible from ground captures alone.

“From the air, we can capture in remote and rugged areas by avoiding physical barriers like deep snow and cliffs,” Holland said. “This enables us to rapidly capture a wider cross-section of the overall population, improving the value of the information we gain from each collared animal.”

Using helicopter capture reduces costs as well as helps researchers meet their capture goals before the harshest part of winter sets in, Holland said.

“Our goal is to safely and quickly capture a representative number of these animals,” Holland said. “The public should know that we work hard to be efficient while keeping the animal’s stress to a minimum.”

Although the sight and sound of low-flying aircraft used in big-game research may prove a temporary inconvenience, Petch said such projects have many long-term benefit, including healthy wildlife populations and productive hunts in the future.

“Colorado has an extremely valuable natural resource that we are working hard to conserve,” said Petch. “We appreciate everyone’s contributions and patience as we continue to find ways to ensure the health of our wildlife in the face of a growing human population and other challenges.”


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