Helicopter to drive Cathlamet deer into nets



CATHLAMET — With an effort to capture and relocate endangered deer going slower than expected, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will use helicopters to speed up the process.

Tuesday morning, March 19, a low-flying helicopter pilot will use a technique known as “helicopter hazing” in an attempt to drive endangered white-tailed deer into nets — something that was “always a potential part of the plan,” Doug Zimmer, a spokesman for FWS said in a phone interview last week.

Around 9 a.m., the helicopter will buzz the Julia Butler-Hansen Refuge for the Columbian white-tailed deer, while biologists, volunteers and veterinarians wait on the ground to remove deer from the nets and prepare them for transport to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

“By using the helicopter — which is noisy, big and unusual for deer — we hope to be able to push the deer and use their instinct to get away from something that bothers them,” Zimmer said.

In late January, biologists began a race to move about 50 of the Cathlamet refuge’s deer to Ridgefield, because they fear a badly eroded dike on the refuge may soon break, flooding the refuge and endangering the deer.

Biologists have captured 23 deer, but the project hasn’t gone as smoothly as biologists had hoped, Zimmer said.

One deer died while being transported.

“We opened up the box, and he was dead. We’re really looking into that,” Zimmer said, adding that stress may have been a factor. Veterinarians have begun lightly sedating the animals for transport and supervising them until the effects of the drug have worn off.

Another deer transported to Ridgefield was later found dead. Three other deer in Ridgefield appeared to have fallen prey to a coyote or other predator. Biologists have avoided injuring the deer during capture and release.

While some deaths were expected, they have set the project back somewhat, Zimmer said.

“We knew going in that we would lose some deer. What we wanted to do was minimize the number lost during the handling period. You have much less control after you release them,” he said.

Since relocation could injure or distress pregnant does and unborn fawns, biologists wanted to finish the project by early April, when does reach advanced stages of pregnancy.

“We have to assume that female deer will be pregnant. As their pregnancy advances, we don’t want to put them under stress,” Zimmer said.

Weather slowed the project in February, and as greenery has sprouted on the refuge, the fruit slices biologists use for bait have lost much of their appeal.

“The effectiveness of getting them into nets just really decreased quickly,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer said biologists hope to capture about a dozen deer today, but weather and other factors could affect that number.

“Optimum would be to pick up 10 to 12 deer, ideally in family groups, but we’d be happy with five. Frankly, we’ll be happy with anything we can get,” Zimmer said.