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Panhandle Passages: Chopper Time

From the rocky buttes of the Wildcat Hills near Gering to the evergreen-studded canyons near Bassett, a helicopter crew put in time for Nebraska’s big game conservation efforts during the past week and month. I’ve been fortunate to be up close and personal with some of their air time.

Last week, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission used the help of a contracted helicopter crew of California-based Native Range Capture Services to catch bighorn sheep and elk and provide the animals with tracking collars and ear tags.

This was my second time watching the capture crew in action, and it was a sight no less remarkable to witness than the first one this time around. Truly impressive is the intricate manner in which the pilot steers the aircraft between obstacles, not to mention the steady eye of the gunner who fires nets and tranquilizer darts toward the animals while standing out the door of the aircraft with one leg on the skid.

The bighorn sheep project especially takes a lot of preparation and coordination. The Commission’s wildlife staff members in Alliance have been preparing for months. Veterinarians from the Alliance Animal Clinic, USDA-APHIS, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Chadron State College wildlife club members are among the partners and volunteers who joined Commission staffers in the effort. Contributions from organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Nebraska Big Game Society, Iowa Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, National Wild Sheep Foundation and Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation help finance the projects.

Todd Nordeen, northwestern district wildlife manager who spearheaded the projects, said that all the collared bighorn sheep seem to be doing well. Most of them have understandably scattered, he said, but staff members continue to monitor their whereabouts. He expects it’s the same with the elk.

Here’s a slideshow of some photos from the bighorn sheep project:

For those who prefer video:

And, here are some images from the elk captures:

One of the first questions I get when talking about the experience is usually, “Did you ride in the helicopter for that?”

Nope, not this time. But on Feb. 4 I had my turn inside the helicopter’s cockpit as the same service was contracted to fly members of Game and Parks Staff on a mule deer survey in the Pine Ridge. It was the first such helicopter survey for Commission staff, and my first helicopter ride – or “magic carpet ride” as the pilot aptly described it. My shift included the area of Fort Robinson State Park and the Soldier Creek Wilderness Area.

A person couldn’t ask for a better way to view some of Nebraska’s most beautiful country and its diverse wildlife. Not only did we see mule deer, beautiful buttes and pines, but also whitetails, elk, coyotes, bighorn sheep, sharp-tailed grouse and golden eagles.

Here is a little taste of what it was like:

Of course, there is always a lot of interest in Nebraska’s big game populations such as bighorn sheep and elk. Mule deer have garnered a lot of attention because of their suspected population losses in areas, and we’ll be issuing findings from the survey soon.

Wildlife management can be a complicated task, especially when it comes to reintroducing a species such as bighorn sheep. Efforts such as these, though, ensure that not only I get to see these wonderful animals, but that they’ll long be around for you to do the same – whether by land or by air.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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