If you see low-hovering helicopters with people half-hanging out the door and shooting guns in the foothills of Larimer County this week, don’t freak out.
It’s just crews using net guns to capture deer and elk for several studies being conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Those crews are scheduled to fly over the county from Fort Collins north at the end of this week, weather permitting.
Capture crews use helicopters to fly over herds on their winter range and shoot net guns to capture the animals. Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff then moves in to immobilize the animals and fit does (female deer) and cows (female elk) with satellite GPS collars before releasing them.
The GPS collars record the positions of the animals for the next three to five years and allow biologists to identify mule deer and elk seasonal ranges, migration corridors, habitat use, mortality and future habitat improvement projects.
Some people have criticized Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s disturbance of deer and elk herds in winter when animals can already be stressed due to the weather. However, deer and elk are easier to locate when they are on their winter range because they are more bunched up and the terrain is more open than when the animals are on their summer range.
Kirstie Yeager, the agency’s wildlife biologist coordinating the effort to capture 50 elk southwest of Denver over the weekend and fit them with radio collars, said the data collected annually or biennially is used to inform management decisions. She said like many other state agencies, Colorado Parks and Wildlife uses air support, when appropriate, to obtain population data for several big game species.
Yeager said aerial surveys are the most efficient method to gather a lot of information with little disturbance to the animals.
“Animals in small groups can be assessed in seconds, with larger groups taking only a few minutes,” she said. “For most big game animals in Colorado, this single survey is the only interaction that we have with them all year, and in some cases, every two years. In relative terms, the brief disturbance of the aerial survey is far less impactful than many other repetitive human activities across their range.”
The animals will be captured on their winter range east of the Continental Divide, ranging from the Wyoming border south into South Park. Project areas include private land, state and federal lands as well as Jefferson and Boulder County open space properties.
Last week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife conducted its first winter aerial survey of the elk herd northwest of Fort Collins since 2006.
The surveys are done to determine sex, age and numbers of animals and to assess the health of the population. The information plays into how many hunting licenses will be offered to manage the herd.
The survey also served as the first time biologists got a good look at how the elk fared after the nearly 209,000-acre Cameron Peak Fire forced the elk off their summer range
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