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'Capture monkeys' in action: Pilot to fly elk capture excursion in TRNP today

The Hughes 500D is Leading Edge Aviation's main capture helicopter, according to its website. A crew from the Idaho company will begin an elk collaring program in Theodore Roosevelt National Park today.

Owner and pilot of Leading Edge Aviation, Jim Pope, 50, said from a landing and fuel stop in Deer Lodge, Mont., on his way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park on Tuesday morning that he has been a helicopter pilot leading a crew capturing wild animals much of his life.

The elk collaring program at TRNP begins today, and once again Pope and a crew of three will take on the challenge. The excursion could continue Thursday.

The team, from Lewiston, Idaho, was expected to arrive in North Dakota on Tuesday afternoon.

"I've been around it most of my life," Pope said of the undertaking. "My dad used to catch animals in the early days. He was in the business in the '60s."

Pope took his first helicopter ride at age 3 and was hooked.

"It's just the adventure and always doing something different."

There are not a lot of animal capturing businesses out there and Pope trained his crew, which specializes in wildlife capture and agricultural operations.

They have collared in TRNP on and off for eight years, Pope said. The first step upon arrival is working with the park to find out the mission.

Then the crew takes off in a helicopter and locates the elk in a suitable location. They capture the elk in nets using a net gun and hover down.

The "capture monkeys," as they are referred to, get out of the helicopter and wrestle the netted elk, which average 500 to 800 pounds, to the ground.

"They collar them and perform biologic samples including veterinarian services," Pope said. "They take the net off, put a collar on and release them right back into the wild where they were captured."

The challenge of a capture in TRNP can be wind and cold.

"One time we were there it never got above minus 10, and 25 mph wind," he said, adding TRNP is not at a high elevation and it's not mountainous so operating in wind is easier.

"We have limits and anyone can call it off if they feel safety is an issue at any time," Pope said.