Whoa: 21st-Century Cowboys Saddle Up Helicopter and Net Gun


It looks like the scene from a military action movie: A helicopter flies low, buzzing just feet above the ground. Two men in full gear lean out the side, taking aim at fleeing targets.

They line up the sights and pull the trigger, then leap off the helicopter to intercept their foe.

But this isn’t a battle, and their targets don’t shoot back.

Amazing video from Arizona shows this scene playing out in real life, with a few details you might not expect: The men in the helicopter are from the Game and Fish Department, and they’re using special net guns to capture and relocate elk without harming the magnificent animals.

“Arizona wildlife officials say dozens of elk from Arizona will be transported east as part of a partnership to restore the elk population in West Virginia,” explained KTVK News.

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“Arizona Game and Fish Department officials say roughly 50 cows and 10 bulls, captured east of Flagstaff, will be transported more than 2,000 miles away to Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County, where they will join nearly two dozen elk already on site,” continued the station.

If elk don’t spring to mind when you think of West Virginia, that’s because they haven’t been native to the Mountain State in well over a 100 years. However, wildlife experts are trying to re-introduce them as part of a conservation program that should help the national elk population thrive.

“We’re pleased to assist the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources in its efforts to restore elk to their native range,” said Jim Ammons, an official from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Have you ever seen an elk in the wild?

“Helping restore wildlife populations is in keeping with the vision of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, using science-based principles to manage wildlife in the public trust,” he continued.

It’s an ambitious project, with ambitious tactics: After wildlife officers use a special hand-held net gun to harmlessly capture each elk, they muzzle the animals and hoist them into the air using a fabric lifting bag. A waiting truck receives each elk. The animals are mildly sedated for their own safety during the process.

“Once they’ve got in on an animal, if they’re able to shoot off the net, and it tangles up their legs, the animal falls down, and they got a mugger that gets out of the helicopter and restrains them,” Amber Munig, a big game program supervisor, explained to KSAZ TV.

Yes, the official job description for wildlife experts on this mission is possibly the coolest in the world: “Elk mugger.”

“They’re put on hobbles and a blindfold, which calms them down pretty quickly. We’re also giving them a small sedative, just to keep them calm during this processing,” Munig continued. The elk are held and tested for 30 days before the cross-country transport to make sure they’re healthy and strong.

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Interestingly, the Arizona elk that are being readied for transport to the other side of the continent are themselves transplants from another successful relocation program from years past.

“Arizona received elk in the early 1900s, 1913, to be specific,” said Munig. “It’s a great way for us to help another state establish their population again.”

Stephen McDaniel, the director of West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, explained that the project had benefits beyond just helping the elk, and acknowledged that conservation and hunting both have a place.

“There’s obviously going to be an economic benefit,” said McDaniel. “People will come in, as far as tourism is concerned, and when we do eventually start hunting them, there will be economic benefits there.”

KSAZ explained that the goal is to have 2,500 elk in West Virginia before hunting is allowed, and the state will, of course, use a permitting process to make sure the population is kept stable.

The entire program is a good reminder that man can have a positive role in nature, and responsible stewardship is vitally important.

It just sometimes takes a helicopter to get the job done.

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Benjamin Arie is an independent journalist and writer. He has personally covered everything ranging from local crime to the U.S. president as a reporter in Michigan before focusing on national politics. Ben frequently travels to Latin America and has spent years living in Mexico.