Too bad elk can’t be counted with drones in Pennsylvania

Too often, I think, folks here doubt or don’t acknowledge the commitment of wildlife-management professionals, especially if they are affiliated with the widely disliked Pennsylvania Game Commission. It’s unfair.

I thought of this when the agency recently decided to return to using an aerial survey to determine how many elk really are in the state’s six-county herd. The commission stopped doing aerial counts a decade ago.

Commission elk biologist Jeremy Banfield asked for the change, noting that he is not confident in the accuracy of the ground-based survey of recent years. Banfield, who had previously observed elk from the air when he worked in the West, believes the animals are easy to spot from the air when there is snow cover.

“They stand out,” he said, adding that he was ready to participate in an aerial survey.

But flying is risky. Elk can’t be counted from a big plane from high altitude. Instead, surveyors need to be able to circle low to the ground, and things can go wrong with small planes. In fact, as Banfield noted, the leading cause of death for wildlife biologists on the job is small plane or helicopter crashes.

It reminds me of a wildlife researcher I saw featured on a TV show awhile back, who said, “Almost all wildlife biologists know of a colleague or a friend who’s died in a plane or helicopter crash. And more often than not, it’s in the line of duty, surveying nests or counting animals.

So it’s no surprise the Game Commission opted not to put its biologists in harm’s way to count elk, deciding instead to hire Owyhee Air Research, an Idaho company that specializes in wildlife surveys. That company flies twin-engine prop planes equipped with the latest in infrared and high-definition photography equipment. Owyhee has worked in many states.

The company’s planes will fly at 2,500 to 3,000 feet and have the capability to zoom in on any heat signature to accurately determine the species. They will be able to conduct an extremely accurate survey; it will be interesting to see if the 1,000-elk estimate that Banfield and the commission have been using the last few years is close.

In a few years, I bet, elk will be counted using drones because they are much safer than manned aircraft. And if battery-life can be improved, an aerial survey using drones could also be done faster and cheaper than with a plane or helicopter.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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