Net gun fired from helicopter catches deer near Cathlamet

Animals being moved to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

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CATHLAMET — A helicopter crew with a net gun captured a dozen deer at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge near the mouth of the Columbia River where managers fear they'll be flooded when a failing dike breaks.The net expanded in midair like a Spider-Man web and dropped on each deer, The Daily News reported Wednesday.

Biologists resorted to the net gun after the deer were too wary to be driven into nets by helicopter hazing.

No deer were killed during the helicopter capture, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Doug Zimmer.

"It was a very, very successful day. That was a very adept, very professional helicopter crew," Zimmer said.

The use of the helicopter was the latest development in an effort that began in January to move about 50 endangered Columbian white-tailed deer from the Julia Butler-Hansen Refuge, where habitat will be lost when a badly eroded dike fails.

About 30 deer have been moved so far to the Ricgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

A crew of more than 50 biologists, volunteers, local high school students and two veterinarians gathered at Cathlamet on Tuesday morning 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, toward 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 have 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" that detonated in the air. But the deer turned away from nets, retreating into the woods instead.

By midmorning, the pilot 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 Spiderman-like nets.

Pope then swooped within inches of the ground, allowing an assistant to leap out and secure the deer and hook the net to the copter.

In an instant, the dangling deer, now mildly sedated, was flying toward a staging ground for transfer to a truck for a ride 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, which was captured within the hour. The pair would later be reunited in Ridgefield.