The helicopter hovered low over the hills southeast of Kelly Mountain, 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 in the evening, 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. Melissa 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 cold-weather 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 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 and when and if they die.
“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.”