Landers: Big-game research a big game of pain
Although not in the job description for a wildlife biologist, it helps if you can take a punch.
Woody Myers, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Department big-game researcher, has handled more than 1,000 deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and moose in his 36-year career. None of them was tame.
The animals are caught in traps, tangled in nets shot from helicopters or darted with tranquilizers. Once subdued, a critter gets an exam. Blood samples are drawn and tags are punched into its ears while body temperature is monitored anally.
You can’t blame it for getting cranky.
“I’ve had some rows with deer,” Myers said, recalling a mule deer that kicked him three times in the temple and broke his glasses before he could react.
He was getting the doe in to a squeeze chute to work her up for research when she tried jumping a panel.
“I grabbed her legs, pulled them to her chest and tried to put the pressure on but I slipped and she had me – boom-boom-boom.
“Then she started jumping on me, just pounding me until the guy I as working with could open the gate and let her out.”
For a big-game animal, being adept at kicking and running is the difference between survival and becoming a predator’s lunch.
“They’re good at it,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers also deal with dangerous wildlife ranging from raccoons to cougars and bears, not to mention the occasional felon or meth addict.
“Those guys are professionals and they have to be skilled to survive, too,” Myers said. “Every situation is different.”
Fish and Wildlife police sometimes tap Myers for his expertise with wildlife drugs, as they did last week to tranquilize a bull moose they had cornered in the enclosure behind the Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop along Interstate 90 near Barker Road.
Drugging a moose is a big deal.
About 10 times a week during the peak moose-on-the-loose months of June-July and January-February, the Fish and Wildlife office in Spokane Valley gets a call asking for help with a moose blocking a road, eating landscaping, stomping dogs or the like.
In many cases, the callers expect wildlife officials to tranquilize the beast and haul it away.
But wildlife officers choose to drug moose only about 15 times a year, notably when public safety is threatened, said Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman.
Moose are part of our landscape and the state can’t respond to every call, especially since the moose usually move away on their own, she said.
“It costs about $1,000 in staff time, drugs, mileage and other expenses to relocate a moose,” she said. “And it’s dangerous to both the moose and the officers, so we do it only as a last resort.”
That was the case last week at the Harley shop.
“We were concerned about the possibility of a vehicle collision on I-90 and we were also concerned for the moose’s survival, since we’d heard that people in vehicles had been chasing the bull,” Myers said.
“It was 1 p.m. and 90 degrees. Its tongue was hanging out when we arrived, and we had to stress it even more to get it darted. It was clearly overheated.”
Because of the bull’s weakened condition, Myers drew a lighter than normal tranquilizer dose to avoid killing it with the drug. Officer Dave Spurbeck shot the dart into the moose and minutes later the work began.
“Luckily, the Harley dealer had a water hose and big coolers full of ice,” Myers said. “We packed ice bags around the moose. Their normal temperature is 100 degrees; we get very concerned if it’s over 105, and this moose was over 107.”
Time was running out on the effects of the drug by the time four wildlife officers and Myers felt they could roll the 800-pound moose onto a tarp and drag it into a department stock trailer.
“It was showing signs of waking up,” he said. “Normally I’d have given it a little more drug and drawn some blood and stuff, but I figured the sooner we got it on its feet the better.”
With the trailer gate shut, Myers opened a sliding door to administer two reversal drugs to the moose’s rump.
“Its legs were against a gate and I thought I was safe. No way could it kick me,” he thought – in the last moment before he saw stars.
The kick was so quick he didn’t see it coming to his head between his right jaw and ear.
Capt. Dan Rahn caught Myers and yanked him out of the way as the moose fussed some more.
“Woody, I’m taking these away from you now,” Officer Mike Sprecher said as he grabbed the two loaded syringes from his hands.
“Like I said, these guys are pros,” Myers said, noting they got more ice from the Harley dealer to soothe his quickly developing shiner.
“It could have been the end of me,” he said. “Thirty-six years in the field and I’m still learning.”
Spurbeck used a jab stick to administer the reversal drugs and the officers drove north to release the moose far from the city while Myers went to the ER, where his concussion was diagnosed.
“The triage nurse didn’t know what to think when I told her I’d been kicked by a moose and the blood on my arm might be from nicking it with a syringe,” he said.
But Myers’ peers have been there, and they reacted with the appropriate degree of understanding and compassion.
“Next time you enter a boxing match,” said one biologist in Olympia, “stay in your own weight class.”
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email email@example.com.