Helicopter surveys bolster moose research effort

Posted Jan. 31, 2013, at 3:20 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 01, 2013, at 9:04 a.m.

IN THE AIR OVER TOWNSHIP 40 MD, Maine — Atop the list of things you might not want your helicopter pilot to say when you’re on your first-ever flight, and his high-powered Bell 407 chopper is midway through a catch-your-breath corkscrew turn so that he — and you — can get a better look at a burly Maine moose that, according to plan, has been stirred up by the aerial disturbance:

“That would be the 100-foot bell going off there,” Maine Ranger Pilot Chris Blackie said, his calm voice crackling through earphones.

That’s 100 feet above ground level.

The moose galloped through the trees as Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Lee Kantar gave a play-by-play of the action, and as a photographer and writer leaned into the turn, and (perhaps nervously) eyeballed the 60-foot-tall trees that kept getting closer and closer.

Then, with a twitch of the controls, the chopper responded, gaining altitude, and we were off to find another moose or two … or 10.

“That was actually going pretty easy,” Blackie said later, after he had flown back to the Maine Forest Service headquarters in Old Town. “[That helicopter] will do stuff that I probably wouldn’t do.”

But having the capability of a Bell 407 — the MFS fleet’s first new helicopter, purchased back in 2007 — can make all the difference on projects like the one Kantar, Blackie and their respective colleagues and departments have collaborated on for the last three winters. It’s dependable. It has plenty of power for low-level work. And it comfortably seats the biologists who sometimes spend hours staring out windows, looking for moose.

The project includes two different kinds of flights over the state’s most moose-y Wildlife Management Districts. The first, a “transect” flight, is used to determine a population estimate. During those flights, two biologists conduct independent counts, looking out their windows as Blackie or another MFS pilot travels down a 25-mile-long transect line.

Tape on the chopper’s window outlines the search area. If a moose appears between the helicopter’s skid and the window line — a swath that equates to 60 meters, when you’re flying at 200 feet above the ground, as pilots are required to do — it counts. If not, it doesn’t. After some computer modeling, biologists are able to translate those counts into estimates of the population in that district.

The second kind of flight — the kind that Blackie modeled on Tuesday morning — is a “composition” flight, during which biologists try to find 100 moose in a given district and determine whether they are bulls, cows or calves. Biologists can chart differences in appearance even when bull moose have dropped their antlers, as they do each winter. And as is quickly apparent, those flights are a bit more … stimulating.

“This stuff we’re going to do today is a lot less monotonous than transect work,” Blackie said before we began. “Transect work is necessary and we do what we do, but this stuff [today] is more like a rodeo. This stuff keeps you a little bit more awake than the transects.”

That’s an understatement.

Well-practiced after having spent hundreds of hours in the air together, Kantar and Blackie call sightings of good-looking moose habitat, moose tracks, and, eventually, actual moose.

Moose that are bedded down will most often rise and walk or jog away from the approaching helicopter, and the crew is careful not to harass the animals, making gender determinations as quickly as possible.

When the moose are spotted, Blackie makes the chopper dance. Nose down, banking to the left. Nose down, banking to the right. Once in awhile, a bell chimes. Every now and then, Blackie asks if anyone’s feeling airsick. And sometimes, he simply freelances, deciding a particular spot deserves extra attention.

“There’s a bunch of habitat over there,” Blackie said at one point, out near Nicatous Lake, simultaneously rolling the helicopter hard to the left, so that its occupants could turn their heads a few degrees and stare straight at the ground.

“Um …” Kantar began, chuckling. “So, I guess you’re turning the helicopter?”

While the duo clearly have fun in the air, the business at hand is important and plays a crucial role in the state’s moose management efforts.

Kantar, the state’s head moose biologist, explained that for years, he and his colleagues were limited by the quality of Maine moose data that existed.

Ten years ago, Kantar explains, a well-founded belief was that five moose per square mile was about the maximum density that would exist. After three years of flying and accumulating data, he can now prove that’s not true.

“Everybody wants to know how many animals are out there,” Kantar said. “That’s a difficult thing to get, even on the best day, for any animal, anywhere, any time. Now we have a technique we’re very confident in that works very well for moose, and we’re able to [use that technique] in our best moose habitat.”

Add in the composition flights, and biologists get an even better picture of the population and are able to set management goals accordingly. This year, for instance, Kantar said some Wildlife Management Districts will receive more moose permits during hunting season. Others will receive fewer. Both of those decisions will be made confidently, thanks to three years of helicopter surveys.

Those flights are always conducted during the winter — the colder the better — for a simple reason.

“We want brown on white,” Kantar said. “That sightability, especially [when we study deer, is key]. We want everything in our favor.”

The DIF&W partnered with the Maine Forest Service for the work, and both Blackie and Kantar are glad they did: It eliminates the need to hire contract pilots, and has led to a camaraderie between the two state agencies, both said.

“I’ve had my fingers [in the project] since the get-go, and I feel a personal attachment,” said Blackie, who began flying planes as a 17-year-old in Hodgdon, and who spent years flying “trips,” or helicopter tours in the Florida Keys, Wisconsin and at county fairs up and down the Eastern Seaboard. “I feel like I’m part of the crew. It’s fun to go out and do, and [the Maine Forest Service] wants to get the job done.”

Kantar said the fact that the MFS pilots have so enthusiastically embraced the project has been a big key in its success.

“These guys have all their normal, typical duties, but they’ve made it very easy on us due to their commitment and flexibility,” Kantar said. “The end product is you have all this incredible information, but you almost forget it wasn’t easy getting there. It’s complicated.”

Finding money to pay for the work was one complication, with flight time ranging from $625 to about $850 an hour. Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grants helped jumpstart the project, and now the DIF&W benefits from a moose research and management fund that was instituted by the Maine Legislature, Kantar said.

Still, more work remains. Kantar has a laundry list of projects that he’d like to do, including more study on moose calves and their mortality. He also hopes to continue the flights, adding to the growing database that biologists can rely on as they manage the herd.

“I’ve got a whole list of things I want to do, but [there’s] a finite amount [of money],” Kantar said. “Things cost a lot to do.”


A previous version of this story misidentified Maine Ranger Pilot Chris Blackie as a Warden pilot.