I checked something off my bucket list this week — Last Sunday, I finally got to ride in a helicopter.
The ride came during an operation to capture and place GPS tracking collars on elk on the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine. Before things got underway, I asked Mark Shelton, pilot with Native Range Capture Services, if there was an opportunity to come get me and take me to where his crew would be working an elk. Without that ride, the chances of getting to where they had an elk on the ground were right between slim and none. That photo helps me tell the story of the operation. But, of course, I also really wanted a ride.
My dad flew when I was a kid. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in a Cesena taking aerial photos for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission during my 14 years with the agency. I’ve always loved being in the air and joke that when I win the lottery, the first thing I’ll do is sign up for flight lessons. But I’ve never had the chance to fly in a helicopter.
I’d love to use one for aerial photos, at least in some cases. Twice I’ve photographed the Missouri National Recreational River Resource and Education Center at Ponca State Park from a fixed-wing. It’s tricky to get the right altitude and approach angle to get the perfect composition of the center and the Mighty Mo in the background when you’re doing 100 mph and shooting with a medium telephoto zoom. I probably had my pilot make 20 passes the first time I tried it. With a helicopter, I could tell the pilot, “Move that way a bit. Up a bit. Ok, right there,” click the shutter once and go home. But at $500 an hour for a helicopter, three times the rate of a Cesena, it’s not really an option.
Neither was riding along as the crew actually captured elk Sunday. Watching Shelton pursue those elk, maneuvering over rough, timbered terrain to get his crew within yards of an elk in order to shoot it with a chemical dart was impressive. So was watching him “land” to let them out. Let’s just say from my perspective, I’m not sure how he didn’t hit his rotors on the hillside in front of him as he hovered close enough to the ground that his crew could bail out. I suppose if you do this for 15 years, you must be good. If not, you’d be dead. Which is why some probably call him crazy. So am I, but while I would’ve loved to go on that wild ride, I’m guessing Shelton’s insurance company would frown on him taking a pilgrim along for the capture ride.
I’ll take what I can get, though. I was amazed at how smooth the takeoff, flight and landing was. Effortless you might say. I didn’t get to bail out onto a hillside: this elk was on a flat next to the river. My flight lasted only two minutes each way and there wasn’t really much time to take photos in the air. But I got the photos I wanted: Donnie Wickerman of Jackson, Wyoming, attaching an ear-tag and collar to a cow elk they had darted, stealing some hair and administering a shot of penicillin and the reversal drug.
I got to see Shelton in action again on Monday morning, when they used net guns to capture nine bighorn sheep at Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford. On that day, with the help of Laura Woodrum, who tracks sheep in the region for the Commission, I was in perfect position for a birds-eye view of the helicopter crew in action. Still, I ended up with more exercise than photos. Shelton pushed the sheep right to me, but when the sheep and chopper went behind the butte I was standing on, I ran to the east to catch the action I assumed would happen on the other side of the point. The sheep reversed course, however, and I missed most of the two captures, which I would’ve seen had I stayed put. Win some and lose some. I did win the next go-round, capturing photos of the crew netting two sheep in one shot on a steep hillside.
So now there are six elk wandering through the Niobrara River Valley with GPS collars that will help biologists not only track their range and movement, but also help them find and count the herd. When enough wild elk are present in the neighborhood, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a partner in the study, will open the refuge to elk hunting. Already they’ve removed some of the captive elk there and lowered fences on part of the refuge to let wild elk and deer come and go as they please.
And there are also nine sheep wandering Fort Robinson with radio or GPS collars, some getting replacements for old units with dead batteries, some getting them for the first time. District Biologist Todd Nordeen hopes tracking those sheep will have a happy ending, as so many animals in that herd have died from pasteurella pneumonia in recent years.
Of course in this job, you usually get more photos than you set out to get. When you’re in the Niobrara Valley or the Pine Ridge, that’s not hard to do. A sampling of those photos, along with a few from the capture, are here for your enjoyment. While you do, I’ll be trying to figure out how I’m going to get my next ride in a helicopter.
If you want to read more about the elk and bighorn captures, check out David Hendee’s article in the Omaha World Herald. I’m hoping he’ll share one of the photos he snapped of me in the chopper. He might not since I forgot to take him along on my bighorn photo safari Monday. You’ll also read more about the operation in the May NEBRASKAland, too, when new staffer Justin Haag will share his report.