Jul 19, 2021

Helicopters Play a Vital Role in Wildlife Conservation and Management. Here’s Why.

Helicopters Play a Vital Role in Wildlife Conservation and Management. Here’s Why.

A helicopter’s versatility, speed and agility make the aircraft an ideal tool for countless aerial projects—from heavy lifting, to search and rescue, utility construction, and cinematography.

Just the same, state and local governments, as well as wildlife conservation groups and researchers, have relied on helicopters as an essential tool for wildlife conservation and management for over 50 years.

Around the country, helicopters are routinely used as the most efficient and reliable means of studying and tracking wildlife on animal preserves, conducting population surveys that aid in wildlife conservation, and performing life-saving capture procedures for wildlife in need of urgent medical care.

Helicopters allow researchers and local governments to survey large areas of land efficiently and quickly, and they ensure that biologists aren’t limited by the availability of roads, trails or infrastructure. Moreover, a helicopters’ low-level flight capabilities allow biologists to see animals out of sight from most trails or animals that would otherwise be hidden by topography or vegetation.

An essential resource for many research groups and wildlife foundations, helicopter chartering companies like Helicopter Express pride themselves on the ability to aid conservation efforts across the country’s parks and refuges.

Why helicopters?

Prior to World War II, fixed-wing aircraft were often used in wildlife management, but flight characteristics necessary to deal with many wildlife species—like agility, height, and lifting capabilities—were often lacking. Helicopter use on preserves across the country began in the 1950s and was commonplace by the early 1970s, thanks in large part to California’s early adoption of helicopters on their refuges and parks.

As wildlife conservation techniques became more sophisticated and essential, the versatile flight capabilities of helicopters allowed for the development of various management techniques used prominently today across the country, primarily for large mammals and waterfowl.

The helicopter’s ability to hover, travel at low-level altitudes and perform quick, precise maneuvers quickly proved essential to tracking and surveying wildlife herds and animal populations. Surveys conducted using helicopter observation generate important data about the wildlife populations served and prove essential for the country’s conservation efforts and tracking of native wildlife in the 21st century.

Today, population estimates made from animal surveys help wildlife managers across the country set game seasons, tag quotas for hunting, and protect endangered or at-risk populations of wild animals. More, monitoring ratios of animals—like fawns to does, or bucks to does—help provide information on reproduction in herds and fawn survival.

As helicopter use became more sophisticated in wildlife conservation, a helicopter’s lifting and transportation capabilities have been applied to wildlife capture and used to obtain critical and reliable information to ensure wildlife health and prosperity.

Today, wild animals are generally captured and released with the aid of expert helicopter pilots to conduct research by gathering samples, take measurements, test for diseases, and place tracking and monitoring devices that help scientists study and conserve animal populations. Wildlife is also often captured for relocation to establish new populations, disperse overpopulated herds, and protect sensitive and endangered species.

Aerial Surveys

Governments, research groups, and wildlife associations routinely call on helicopter chartering companies, like Helicopter Express and its team of expert pilots, to perform aerial survey operations in preserves and national parks—like the Grand Teton national park, which Helicopter Express has served for many years.

Conducting visual surveys of wildlife in a preserve or park—or using visual data alongside prediction models to develop estimates of populations—is among the most central tools of wildlife conservation.

Helicopter flies in front of a snowy mountain

Dependent on the use of helicopters for noninvasive aerial transport, wildlife surveys conducted by researchers and biologists help to determine whether conservation efforts are effective, monitor changes in population and habitat, select responsible harvests for game species, and provide a picture of the health and diversity of property’s wildlife.

How are aerial wildlife surveys conducted in a helicopter?

When a helicopter chartering company works with a park service, research group or private client to perform a wildlife survey, careful planning is required at every step. Biologists spend time identifying target populations to be surveyed and research objectives to obtain, and they work with helicopter pilots to determine precise observation procedures, locations, safety procedures, and wildlife protocol.

Typically, a ground speed of 40 to 50 miles per hour is maintained at a low altitude, usually around 100 to 150 feet, when performing an aerial survey of a herd or wildlife population. Surveys often begin at low elevations and then move up, following elevation contours in steep terrain and uneven landscapes.

With an experienced pilot, biologists and observers are able to concentrate on their jobs and collect data quickly and harmlessly. Often, helicopter pilots are accompanied by multiple biologists or observers on a single trip, since animal spotting and identification usually requires multiple specialists. While onboard, observers typically spot and count animals, determine the sex and age of wildlife, and survey ecological information, like vegetation, across habitats.

Do helicopters stress wildlife?

While biologists acknowledge that helicopter use in wildlife areas may cause some limited, momentary stress, studies have routinely found helicopters to be the fastest and least invasive method of surveying, tracking, and rescuing wildlife. When working in a refuge or preserve, helicopter charter pilots and biologists do everything possible to minimize any stress on animal populations.

When conducting survey operations, animals are distributed for only a few minutes at a time, and research has shown that animals in a surveyed area may see a helicopter only once in every 3-5 years.

When working with a chartering company, researchers and biologists also approach survey operations with a detailed knowledge and understanding of how certain species are likely to react to the presence of a helicopter or the noise it produces. Elk, for example, often remain bedded or continue grazing while observers gather data, while bighorn sheep and mountain goats tend to be more sensitive to disturbance.

No matter what the species, biologists and helicopter pilots make every effort to record needed data as quickly as possible to minimize stress.

Wildlife Collaring and Tracking

Scientists, land owners, and park municipalities also work with helicopter chartering companies like Helicopter Express to catch and release animals fitted with tracking collars or chips, a humane procedure that allows scientists to collect detailed wildlife data to conserve and preserve wildlife herds.

Researchers typically use data supplied by radio collars to track seasonal movements of animals, monitor population, and set game seasons. Because radio collar data helps determine mortality rates, fish and game societies often use radio collars to adjust hunting seasons and reduce the impact on populations.

Researchers work with experienced helicopter pilots to herd, catch and release an animal fitted with a collar as quickly, efficiently, and stress-free as possible. An experienced team can complete the entire process in 20-30 minutes. Moving quickly keeps flight hours to a minimum, avoiding excessive noise pollution. While waiting for an animal to be fitted with a collar, helicopter pilots are often required to land and idle the helicopter whenever possible, rather than circle or stay flying.

Helicopter flies through a safari bush

With the aid of helicopters, researchers across the country have used radio collaring to gain invaluable and life-saving data on endangered or at-risk animal populations. For example, researchers have used helicopters to complete comprehensive and herd-saving research on moose populations in New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

Using well-established wildlife handling techniques that minimize stress and harm to the animal, researchers used helicopters to net and capture moose without the use of tranquilizers, collecting data on hundreds of moose over a three year period and gaining invaluable insight into the lives, behaviors, and populations of this protected animal.

Capture, Relocation and Medical Care

When needed, park rangers and scientists also rely on helicopter chartering companies like Helicopter Express to capture, relocate or treat wildlife in need of life-saving medical care. Serious operations, experienced helicopter pilots work closely with biologists and wildlife experts to fully plan an animal’s capture, relocation or retrieval.

When embarking on a mission such as these, helicopter pilots work with biologists to address key issues, like:

Working closely with an experienced helicopter pilot, researchers and scientists tasked with locating an animal in need of care or relocating a desired population also engage in key questions about the operational and ecological hazards of a given operation, like:

If working with an expert pilot, operations like these can sometimes require a chase, broken down into three separate categories: Herding, positioning and pursuit.


Herding occurs when an animal or group of animals is identified. The animals may be herded at a slow speed to an area where the capture can be safely performed with as little stress to the animals as possible. Herding is always done in a manner that causes the least disturbance to animals and retains as many animals as possible in their group.


Positioning occurs when an individual or a small group of animals is split away from a large group and increased pressure is applied to direct them to an area where capture or medical care can safely occur. At this stage, care is taken to ensure that the animal is not running too hard or becoming overheated.


Pursuit begins when an individual or small group of animals is pursued in a positive capture mode. This is the most critical phase of the capture operation and, in general, pursuits should last longer than 30 seconds.

Helicopter Express brings the most experienced pilots to your wildlife conservation efforts.

Bell 206 L3

Because wildlife conservation and management efforts can comprise sensitive, complicated and consequential operations, only the most experienced pilots are called upon to work closely with researchers and scientists.

With an experienced team of pilots comprising former military and law enforcement aviators, Helicopter Express is dedicated to doing the jobs that require the most technical skill and exacting precision. Operating one of the most powerful and versatile fleets of helicopters in the Southeast, featuring 24 helicopters, we’re ready to work with you to find the perfect aircraft for your needs.

While based in Atlanta, Helicopter Express routinely charters around the country and has a dedicated track record of partnering with park services on conservation efforts.

If you’d like to learn more, please contact us for more information on availability, location, and services.

Make us your go-to team.

Our highly skilled pilots have the experience and equipment needed to rise to any challenge. When you need experts you can trust, give us a call.