Copter suffers moose-strike

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    Both lose when cow moose collides with helicopter

    EUTHANIZED: Darted animal from the Gustavus herd bumps rear rotor of a tagging aircraft.

    By KATIE PESZNECKER
    Anchorage Daily News

    Published: March 5, 2007
    Last Modified: March 5, 2007 at 07:16 AM

    A routine flight to tag a cow moose took a bizarre turn this weekend when the tranquilized animal charged the tail section of a hovering helicopter, collided with the rear rotor and brought down the aircraft.

    The injured animal was euthanized at the scene.

    The incident happened near the southeast town of Gustavus late Saturday afternoon, and baffled officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

    "I have never personally seen or heard of an injury of this type, caused to an animal by an aircraft," said Doug Larsen, regional supervisor for the Division of Wildlife Conservation. "It just had to be one of those quirky circumstance. Even dealing with bears and goats and moose and wolves, this is pretty unusual and truly a very unique situation."

    Neither the pilot nor biologist Kevin White, who was aboard the helicopter, was injured. But Larsen said the moose was hurt badly enough -- its snout collided with the chopper's tail rotor -- that it had to be put down by White. Biologists typically use a lethal injection to euthanize moose, Larsen said.

    "It was really beyond help at that point," Larsen said. "When it hit its nose, it basically chopped off the end of its nose. It was really severely injured."

    White was aboard a Hughes 369D helicopter, owned and operated by Temsco Helicopters. The identity of the chopper pilot wasn't available Sunday.

    Ketchikan-based Temsco provides flightseeing trips, charter services, and also contracts with government agencies. Larsen said the company has worked closely and successfully with the Division of Wildlife Conservation on outings to collar moose and capture brown bears.

    Larsen said the chopper was negotiating "a pretty confined area" and following the tranquilized moose, which White had shot with a dart, so it wouldn't slip into a tight space or, worse, collapse in water and drown.

    "The moose would start to move, and then the helicopter would back off and try to keep the moose out in the open," Larsen said.

    White bet the cow would head for open space. But close to losing consciousness, the moose did just the opposite.

    "As the animal got closer and closer to going down, an animal sort of loses its thinking -- its ability to rationalize what's in its best interest," Larsen said. "Apparently at that point the moose ... decided to come toward the helicopter. As the moose came toward it, the pilot couldn't maneuver out of the way, and the moose ran into the tail rotor."

    The chopper at this time was hovering, Larsen said. With the tail rotor damaged, the pilot was able to abruptly bring the craft down without causing greater damage, "which is not an easy thing to do," Larsen said.

    The helicopter then had to be lifted from the scene because, without a tail rotor, it couldn't fly.

    The Division of Wildlife Conservation has paid special attention to moose around Gustavus, a tiny town about 48 miles northwest of Juneau in the St. Elias Mountains. It sits on the north shore of Icy Passage and is otherwise surrounded by the 3.3 million-acre Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

    Rapid glacial retreat cleared the way for moose migration from the Haines area to Gustavus in the mid-1960s. The population has thrived. Moose outnumber Gustavus residents 2-to-1, White wrote in an essay for the Fish and Game Web site. "In recent winters, seeing moose in and around town is a daily experience for Gustavus locals," White said.

    Cam Cacioppo, a seven-year resident of Gustavus, said Gustavus moose are part of the town's identity.

    "We have a huge moose population here," she said. "I see moose when I drive to work in the morning. They're always wandering along the road here."

    Scientists wonder if the environment in Gustavus can sustain such a dense moose herd. They've killed cows and adjusted the harvest limit of moose that can be killed during annual hunts, and studied the implications of these population tweaks on the overall herd over time.

    Larsen said it's sometimes been tough to convince the people of Gustavus that there's a good reason to kill a cow moose. The task of moose population control "is sort of a delicate balancing act and certainly the public plays into that balancing act," he said.

    To learn more about where the moose spend time, get their food and give birth to calves, biologists collar some animals to monitor their movements.

    That was the mission on Saturday: Tag the moose.

    White, the biologist, did not respond to messages left on his cell phone Sunday. But Larsen spoke with White on Saturday night, and had a good handle on how the events unfolded.

    Word of the incident spread around Gustavus afterward, Cacioppo said. One neighbor called Cacioppo's office, worried that the chopper she spotted getting hauled out of town belonged to a friend.

    It's rare an animal is injured during a tagging operation, and to have one die is incredibly uncommon, Larsen said, but the moose in this case was bad off.

    "Kevin made the assessment that it was really beyond help at that point," Larsen said. "I think it was the right move."

    http://www.adn.com/news/alaska/aviation/story/8686031p-8583085c.html