Hold down a job at Idaho Fish and Game? You might get to hold down a deer

The Idaho Statesman - - Front Page - BY JERRY PAIN­TER Idaho Falls Post Regis­ter

The he­li­copter hov­ered low over the hills south­east of Kelly Moun­tain in Blaine County, snow bil­low­ing up from the ground, and deer bounded down the slope to flee the noisy mon­ster.

Idaho Fish and Game re­search bi­ol­o­gist Mark Hur­ley spoke into his ra­dio to a cou­ple of dozen Idaho De­part­ment of Fish and Game em­ploy­ees, bi­ol­o­gists and vol­un­teers.

“OK, ev­ery­one down, here he comes,” he said, re­fer­ring to the he­li­copter.

Ev­ery­one hun­kered down be­hind bushes or laid low on the ground like in­fantry avoid­ing de­tec­tion. On the slope above, four deer charged past the peo­ple hid­ing and head­long into a quar­ter-mile long net. After the deer fell to the ground, tan­gled in net­ting, peo­ple burst from their cover and grabbed the deer. Blind­folds were pulled over the an­i­mals’ heads and peo­ple held the deer still with their weight like a wrestler work­ing for a pin.

The fawns were mea­sured, weighed, ear-tagged and col­lared with a GPS satel­lite track­ing unit – and freed within min­utes. Does and bucks were re­leased without col­lars.

By early evening on Jan. 2, Fish and Game had col­lared 30 fawns as part of its an­nual win­ter mor­tal­ity study to de­ter­mine health and pop­u­la­tion of Eastern Idaho’s mule deer herds. The cap­ture will be re­peated in sev­eral ar­eas across the state, fin­ish­ing up some­time in late Fe­bru­ary.

“See­ing how many fawns don’t make it through the win­ter, that helps us with our pop­u­la­tion study to know our suc­cess rate of how many were (added) to the pop­u­la­tion for the up­com­ing year,” said James Brower, re­gional com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager with Fish and Game.

Brower said work­ing on the cap­ture line is a perk for some em­ploy­ees and vol­un­teers who spend most of their time work­ing in an of­fice.

“Nor­mally I’m do­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive work, so this is a treat to get out­side and work with the deer,” said Melissa Abeg­glen, a Fish and Game em­ployee from the Egin area. Abeg­glen brought along her mother, Luanne Abeg­glen, who game­fully pounced on a deer to hold it fast.

“This is my first time,” Luanne Abeg­glen said. “It’s a hoot.”

Ev­ery­one wore cold­weather garb as tem­per­a­tures hov­ered in the sin­gle dig­its. Snow was an­kle deep, but some drifts could be knee deep.

Brower said the he­li­copter used to herd deer is flown by a pi­lot with spe­cial low-fly­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. “(Fish and Game bi­ol­o­gists) know all the pi­lots really well,” he said. “Which is help­ful be­cause you know that you can trust them. They have to have a pretty spe­cific skill type. Not many folks are cer­ti­fied to do that type of fly­ing.”

Brower said that when the chop­per is in the air, it costs about $1,000 an hour. Hur­ley said de­spite the cost, it is more ef­fi­cient than any other method. Fish and Game pop­u­la­tion bi­ol­o­gist Paul At­wood flew with the pi­lot. The pi­lot took di­rec­tions from At­wood on dif­fer­ent ar­eas to herd deer while also try­ing to avoid the bucks if pos­si­ble.

“You don’t want bucks com­ing into the net be­cause they’re dan­ger­ous, ba­si­cally, and that’s not what we’re after,” Brower said. “They’ll also try and spread out where they’re grab­bing them from so they’re not get­ting them from the same spot. That gives us a bet­ter gen­eral idea of the pop­u­la­tion in an area.”

The GPS col­lars give bi­ol­o­gist an idea on where the fawns are trav­el­ing.

“If the fawn dies, re­gard­less of what killed it – long win­ter, harsh win­ter, nu­tri­tion, preda­tor of some sort – as soon as that fawn tips over, if it does, we send a tech­ni­cian in there, we try to get there within 24 hours,” Brower said. “They’ll hike to wher­ever the col­lar is and they’ll de­ter­mine the cause of death. See­ing how many fawns don’t make it through the win­ter, that helps us with our pop­u­la­tion to know our suc­cess rate of how many were re­cruited into the pop­u­la­tion for the up­com­ing year.”

Brower said the bi­ol­o­gists par­tic­i­pat­ing in the study are able to fol­low the GPS sig­nals on a com­puter at their desk.

Peo­ple who helped with grab­bing and hold­ing the deer are called “mug­gers.” Some of the fawns bel­lowed like goats in dis­tress as if they had been mugged, but bounded away ob­vi­ously re­lieved when re­leased.

The mug­gers, bi­ol­o­gists and tech­ni­cians ap­peared to be hav­ing fun.

“I think ev­ery­one was pretty happy,” Brower said the next day. “I think most of the peo­ple walked away with a smile on their face – tired but happy. It’s not some­thing ev­ery­one gets to do ev­ery day.”

JOHN ROARK The Idaho Post Regis­ter

A he­li­copter is used to herd deer into nets near Heise for Idaho Fish and Game bi­ol­o­gists to as­sess the health of mule deer herds and at­tach GPS col­lars to fawns. The cap­ture will be re­peated in sev­eral ar­eas across the state, fin­ish­ing up some­time in late Fe­bru­ary.

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