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When John Saunders entered the helicopter business 34 years ago as an apprentice AME, he never expected to track grizzly bears by air...


July 6, 2007
By James Careless

When John Saunders entered the helicopter business 34 years ago as an
apprentice AME, he never expected to track grizzly bears by air. But
today, as the sole pilot of Peregrine Helicopters – a small charter
company based in Hinton, Alberta – Saunders spends most of his time
doing just that in the Alberta Foothills!

However,
he’s not tracking the bears to shoot them, except with tranquilizer
darts. The reason? As the transportation provider to the Foothills
Model Forest Grizzly Bear Research Program, Saunders and his Bell 206
JetRanger fly vets and biologists into the Foothills to tranquilize,
radio tag, and then live-release grizzly bears. It’s a project aimed at
understanding the territorial needs of grizzly bears by tracking their
movements, and then using this data to create realistic grizzly bear
habitat maps and bear travel corridor maps. The program is also
intended to help humans better understand the nature of grizzly bear
health, and how it is affected by habitat changes and urban
encroachment.

“Tracking grizzly bears is a far cry from the
corporate and utility helicopter work I’ve done over the years,”
Saunders says. “However, in this job, at the end of the day you’re left
with the sense that you’ve contributed something of lasting value.”

THE TERRAIN AND THE TRANSPORTATION

One
hundred thousand square kilometres – that’s about the size of the
Foothills and Rocky Mountains territory covered by the FMF Grizzly Bear
Research Program, with more territory being added every year. In simple
terms, the project’s turf encompasses the entire western half of
Alberta from the Northwest Territories to the Montana border.

Within
this space, FMF biologists and vets travel in Peregrine Helicopters’
JetRanger scouring the treeline for grizzly bears. It’s rough country,
where finding safe sites is no mean feat. As well, the wind and weather
coming off the Rockies’ eastern flank can be treacherous and
unpredictable.

“The terrain here can be anything from a nice
valley meadow to ‘impossible to complete a mission’,” Saunders notes.
The FMF teams does its work within an operating ceiling of 9,000 feet
above sea level. When it’s not looking for bears – or transporting
sightseers to Jasper and other scenic spots – Saunders’ 206 is nestled
in a two-aircraft hangar at the Jasper/Hinton Airport. Beyond serving
as Peregrine Helicopters’ sole pilot of its sole aircraft, “I am also a
licensed AME, so I take care of maintaining the 206, with Aviall
backing me up as my AMO,” says Saunders. “Basically, it’s a two-man
company comprised of the owner, who’s a local businessman, and myself
out at the airport.”

To some extent, Saunders’ past experience
prepared him for this job. He’s flown in this region for years for
companies such as Frontier Helicopter and Northern Mountain Helicopter,
plus corporations such as NovaGas Transmission. In those positions,
Saunders has often risen to the rank of chief pilot. Today, he is an
experienced flyer with thousands of helicopter hours to his credit.

So
how does a chief pilot end up tracking bears? “When NovaGas
Transmission was bought by TransCanada PipeLines, their helicopter
services were ‘outsourced’,” Saunders says. “That’s the corporate term
for it; basically, we were laid off. Well, while spending a few months
considering my options, I got a call from Peregrine Helicopters. Their
pilot had died unexpectedly – he had literally ‘dropped’ at a Christmas
dance – and they needed to know if I’d be willing to help out. I said
yes, and that’s how I ended up chasing grizzly bears for a living!”

THE JOB

The
art of tracking grizzly bears by air is just that; an art. Not only
does Saunders have to carefully husband his fuel and lift capability
during the flight – which is why, once a bear is spotted, the vet is
dropped off at a safe distance to maximize the 206’s performance – but
he also has to identify landing areas close enough to the bear to allow
fast access, but far enough away to allow a safe escape.

“The
day begins with myself, a biologist with a tranquilizer rifle, and a
vet with radio collars, tags, and other equipment flying along the
treeline,” Saunders says. “The best time to look is in the spring, when
the grizzlies are coming out of hibernation. Usually they stick around
their dens for a while after waking up, which makes them easier to
spot.”

Flying just a few hundred feet above the ground – close
enough to see bears, but far enough to minimize their fear factor –
Saunders and his crew conduct their search. Once a likely target has
been selected, “we pick a strategic area where we can drop the vet off
safely with his equipment.” Then the 206 takes off again; back to where
the grizzly was last spotted.

“The biologist sits in the
pilot-side rear seat, with his tranquilizer dart gun at the ready,”
Saunders says. “When we’ve found the bear again, I bring the aircraft
in close enough for a sure, safe shot. Once the bear has been ‘darted’
– that’s the term for it; not ‘shot’ – we hover close by for 5-10
minutes to allow the tranquilizer to take effect. We want to be near
enough to maintain good visual contact with the bear, but far enough
away to not haze him with our sound signature.”

So how tough is
it to get close to a bear from the air? It depends on the bear, he
replies. “Some bears run in straight lines at about 35 mph, which makes
them easy to track. But others zig, zag and dodge, so you never really
know what they’re going to do next.”

Once the grizzly has been
darted and fallen asleep, Saunders goes back and retrieves the vet;
then returns and lands within 150 feet of the bear. Getting the
distance right is crucial, because the FMF vet revives the bear using a
second injection after the tagging is done. “We want to be able to take
off fast once the reversing drug has been administered,” he says. “Even
though it takes a few minutes for the grizzly to revive, we don’t want
to be on the ground when he does.”

With the bear asleep, the
team gets to work in earnest. “The bear is fitted with a GPS radio
transmitting collar, which lets the FMF track its movements in real
time,” says Saunders. “Their ear is also fitted with a smaller radio
tag as a backup.” Meanwhile, the bear’s vital statistics are recorded –
size, weight and physical condition – and blood samples are drawn for
analysis back at the lab. In some instances, the bear is hauled into a
net, then briefly lifted by the 206 to be weighed.

“By doing all
this work, the FMF can keep an eye not just on where the grizzlies are
going, but how their health is progressing over time,” he says. “After
all, we do tend to check the same bears from time to time.”

When
the work is done, the FMF team packs their gear back into the 206. Then
the vet gives the bear the reversing injection, and the 206 takes off.
“We hover nearby to make sure that the grizzly wakes up okay,” he says.
“Then it’s either back to base, or on to the next bear.”

THOUGHTS ON AERIAL BEAR-TRACKING

Although
John Saunders has logged about 80 of these bear-tagging missions to
date, he has yet to get over the wonder of seeing a grizzly up close.
Still, nothing will top the first time he walked up to a tranquilized
bear. “I can tell you that all my senses were firing at 100% that day,”
he says. “When you’re in close proximity to an animal that big, you
don’t really have any trouble staying alert!”

One mission that
stands out in Saunders’ memory is the time that he was tracking a
female cub for tagging. “The cub was about three years old, and the
mother was following it up the hill as we pursued it,” he recalls. ‘As
I got close enough to overfly the cub, the mother turned and jumped off
the slope directly at the helicopter; jaws open and with her massive
paws outstretched! That certainly got my attention: Her paws missed the
skids by only three to four feet!”

Today, as he prepares for yet
another mission into the Foothills, Saunders marvels at what he gets
paid to do. “Does this job ever lose its appeal? Absolutely not,” he
says. “I always look forward to the excitement of the next capture. I
never get tired of doing it!”


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