After elk crashes copter, some question wildlife chopper use

In this photo taken Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, and provided by the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office is a research helicopter that was brought down by a leaping elk in the mountains of eastern Utah. Wasatch County authorities say the elk jumped into the chopper's tail rotor as the craft flew low, trying to capture the animal with a net. The two people on board weren't seriously hurt, but wildlife officials say the elk died of its injuries. The state-contracted Australian crew had been trying to capture and sedate the elk so they could collar it and research its movements about 90 miles east of Salt Lake City. (Jared Rigby/Wasatch County Sheriff's Office via AP)
In this photo taken Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, and provided by the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office is a research helicopter that was brought down by a leaping elk in the mountains of eastern Utah. Wasatch County authorities say the elk jumped into the chopper's tail rotor as the craft flew low, trying to capture the animal with a net. The two people on board weren't seriously hurt, but wildlife officials say the elk died of its injuries. The state-contracted Australian crew had been trying to capture and sedate the elk so they could collar it and research its movements about 90 miles east of Salt Lake City. (Jared Rigby/Wasatch County Sheriff's Office via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — The case of an elk that died after it leapt in the air and brought a low-flying research helicopter down in Utah highlights the use of helicopters in wildlife monitoring, which has been criticized by animal-rights groups but praised as effective by wildlife managers.

The sound of the chopper blades and the wind kicked up by the helicopters can be terrifying for animals, said Jennifer Best with the group Friends of Animals.

"They're loud and they're scary and it's dangerous to the various wildlife that's impacted, and, as this demonstrates, can also be dangerous to the personnel who are operating the helicopter," she said.

She called for the use of less-invasive monitoring tools, like cameras or video monitoring.

The helicopter crew was trying to capture the elk with a net to fit it with a tracking collar before the Monday crash in the mountains about 90 miles (145 kilometers) east of Salt Lake City.

Wildlife officials said it was a fluke accident during an otherwise by-the-book operation. The two people on board were not seriously hurt, but the elk died after jumping into the chopper's tail rotor.

The helicopters are the best way to reach remote wildlife, and the tracking collars placed on elk gather the most detailed information on animals so managers can keep herds healthy, said Mark Hadley with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

That information is used to determine the number of hunting licenses the state can offer and minimize interactions with farmers, he said. The animals are not threatened or endangered in Utah.

The state captures more than 1,000 animals a year and the vast majority are unaffected by the procedure, he said. Crews use nets rather than tranquilizer guns on elk because they don't respond well to the drugs.

It's illegal for private helicopters to chase wildlife in Utah, but Hadley said crews contracted by the state crews are highly trained and know how to get in and out quickly to minimize any disruption to the animals, he said.

Most of the division's work is paid for from hunting and licensing fees.

Wildlife groups are also objecting to a plan to use helicopters to monitor mountain goats and bighorn sheep in another part of Utah designated as wilderness area. Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy said the main concern is that aircraft would disrupt the untouched quality of the area, but the crash also highlights concerns about the dangers of helicopters in mountain terrain, where cleaning up any debris would be a big challenge.

Wild-horse advocates have long opposed use of helicopters in roundups intended to shrink the size of herds that federal land managers say are overpopulated in many parts of the West.

They say the sound and wind created by the machines terrifies and can injure the horses. But most judges have sided with federal land managers who say the helicopters are efficient and the risks are low.

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