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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big-game researcher Woody Myers gave his best shot

Nobody – no hunter, no poacher – has shot more moose in Washington than Woody Myers.

His weapon was a rifle. His aim: usually to save the animal’s life rather than kill it. His load, in most cases, was a tranquilizer dart.

Myers recently retired, adorned with achievements and awards, from a 40-year career with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, mostly as a big-game researcher focused on deer and elk.

He’s credited with introducing the agency to helicopter net gunning as a capture technique as well as research using aerial telemetry and GPS tracking collars. Agency officials said Myers had a hand in capturing more than 1,600 ungulates – deer, elk, moose – and logging more than 3,500 hours in small aircraft, not to mention countless hours bouncing in pickups and some saddle time on horseback.

Myers, who lives north of Spokane Valley, credits his interest in wildlife to his grandfather, a chef who guided deer hunters, and his father, a career Air Force veteran who loved to hunt.

Anxious to continue the lineage, Myers said he saved his lawn mowing money for a year to buy his first shotgun at the age of 8.

While his father was stationed in Western Washington, Myers met an officer who had a degree in fisheries and wildlife. “Dave Narver was the first biologist I’d ever met,” Myers said. “He showed me slides of his undergraduate work with fish and wildlife in Alaska, and I thought holy crap, you can make a living doing that?

“So in fourth grade I decided I wanted to be a biologist.”

Myers had a notable mentor. Narver later ascended to the chief of the Fisheries Branch in the British Columbia Ministry of Environment. “What I remember most is that he could call ducks like nobody else,” Myers said.

One of Myers’ first jobs was working for Idaho Fish and Game on a fawn mortality study along the Idaho-Nevada border. “The state gave me a pickup and a trailer and I lived out in the mountains. What a way to spend a summer: tracking fawns, learning wildflowers, dodging rattlesnakes, taking pictures. It was just great.”

Myers began his Washington career in 1976 doing waterfowl work in the Columbia Basin. Later, he was a wildlife biologist out of Mount Vernon and a Deer and Elk Section manager in Olympia. He also was called once to be an undercover officer in a poaching bust. “I remember my throat being really dry,” he said.

He carved his niche into the big leagues of research starting in 1985 with a move to the Methow Valley to lead the Okanogan Mule Deer Study.

The department’s current director, Jim Unsworth, singled out Myers’ expert testimony in a federal court case as one of his most far-reaching contributions to wildlife conservation.

Based on his expertise in the Okanogan study, Myers took the stand in what became a test for the National Environmental Policy Act, Unsworth said. He was able to detail the potential impacts of development, including a proposed ski area, on mule deer migration corridors in the Methow Valley.

The case was reviewed by the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision in favor of protecting mule deer habitat.

Net-gunning big game from helicopters and shooting tranquilizer darts are research capture-and-release methods Myers brought to Washington in 1986 for studying the Okanogan deer, the largest migratory mule deer herd in the state.

Many of the helicopter techniques were perfected in New Zealand, but it was California researchers who convinced Myers that flying down within feet of fleeing animals and firing a firearm to propel a net for capturing them is an efficient and cost-effective method, he said.

Helicopters are expensive to charter, but they can cover a larger area in less time and require fewer people in the field than other capture methods.

“But it’s dangerous,” he said.

After being trained by a net-gun manufacturer, Myers was invited by California Fish and Game biologists to train with them as they netted bighorn sheep. “Luckily, deer started moving early that fall for our Methow research and I had to stay in Washington to document migration corridors and do what we could to protect them in lieu of the development expected to occur through the valley,” Myers recalled.

“Shortly after I canceled on the California invitation, I learned that the group I was supposed to fly with crashed and everyone was killed.”

Myers said he and a pilot walked away from one helicopter hard landing during his career. “And I can tell you it gets really quiet in an airplane when the engine quits,” he said. “All you hear is wind. In my case, the pilot was able to restart the engine after losing about 500 feet.”

Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers have a dangerous job, especially during fall when virtually everyone they encounter is armed, Myers said.

“Statistically, however, biologist jobs are dangerous, too, because of their use of boats and aircraft. More biologists die than law enforcement officers. And we get beat up in traps by a lot of deer.”

Myers was a quick study in gunning game with nets or darts while strapped to the side of a speeding chopper.

“Shooting a dart is like shooting a rifle only at much slower velocity,” he said. “When shooting from a helicopter, you’re not aiming down the barrel. It’s instinctive. The pilot gets you fairly close, maybe 15 feet sometimes. You point a little behind the animal because you’re coming in faster than it is running.”

Elk line out and are fairly easy to hit, but deer change direction like rabbits. Shooting anything at an animal is serious business, he said.

“Those darts can be projectiles that can penetrate the body cavity if the charge is too hot,” he said. “I’ve lost a few animals trying to tranquilize them. It’s a bad feeling to kill an animal when you’re ultimately trying to do good for them.”

Capturing big game was only the beginning of several high-profile wildlife studies Myers orchestrated in Washington.

In the 1990s, he focused on Blue Mountains elk, looking first at adult elk and then at calves. Volunteers from sportsman’s groups such as the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council helped by bulldogging elk calves netted by helicopter so ear tags and radio collars could be attached.

As the data is analyzed for years after a major study, the results can be misinterpreted by the public and even by other wildlife professionals.

One of the facets of five years of field work in the Blue Mountains looked at how elk calves die. “Cougars were the number one cause followed by black bears,” he said, noting that some people locked onto the loss of half the calves with no perspective.

“The upshot was that overall calf survival was relatively high. The mean was a 45 percent survival rate. Anytime your surviving half of a neonatal ungulate population, that’s pretty darn good.”

The limiting factors for the elk herd also involved drought, compromised habitat, poaching and depredation control and “cow tags” to protect farm and ranch crops. Calves were surviving well enough for the elk herds to grow, but tolerance for elk is a perennial factor where elk range blends into private property, he said.

Most recently, he completed a six-year study on whitetails in northeastern Washington. “We learned that about 60 percent of the whitetails in Units 117 and 121 were migratory adult females.

“We looked at the survival between migrants and residents and there was no difference even though winter habitat quality was a little better for residents. Survival was pretty darn high: 85 percent. We did have wolves in part of the study area. But the most common cause of death were cougars and domestic dogs.”

The management decisions based on his research is in the hands of wildlife managers who also must consider social and political factors. “As a researcher, I present the data,” he said.

In 1999, Myers collaborated with researchers, universities, schools and volunteers from sportsman’s clubs as project leader for the Eastern Washington Cooperative Mule Deer Project.

“Project Mule Deer, as it became known, contributed significantly to our knowledge of mule deer ecology; provided educational opportunities for many graduate students and local school districts; strengthened the agency’s relationships with the outdoor community and resulted in the publication of over 10 theses and scientific papers,” Director Unsworth said.

Moose darting wasn’t a career path Myers courted. He became the agency’s go-to man in far Eastern Washington moose cases because he had acquired the rare certifications and licenses to handle narcotics going into his elk research.

“In 1992, I darted the first moose tranquilized in Spokane,” he said, noting that he’s responsible for moving 250-300 moose through his career.

A book could be written about his moose encounters alone. He’s spooked unsuspecting people as he stalked moose through neighborhoods with his dart rifle at ready. He darted a calf moose after it fell through a window into a basement bedroom in North Spokane.

He was charged by a rutting bull moose at the North Division Y after the dart hit its hip. Myers fled, but the tree he had staked out for refuge was already filled to capacity by the fish biologist who was supposed to back him up.

“I’ve used trees for cover several times after darting moose, including in Manito Park,” he said.

In another case, a moose had taken refuge in the pond at Cannon Hill Park after chasing kids gathering for an Easter egg hunt. “When I showed up, the media was already there with photographers, reporters and TV cameras,” he said.

With a large audience and a Spokane animal control officer at his side, Myers waded waste-deep into the pond for a clear, sure, off-hand shot and everyone grew silent as he shouldered the rifle and squeezed the trigger.

“The dart went 3 feet out the barrel and plopped into the pond,” he said, noting that the cartridge charge had failed. “I wanted to sink into the pond, too.”

He reloaded and reminded department helpers that if the moose went down in the pond, they would have to rush in and keep its head above the water. “But when the dart hit, the moose headed to shore and even ran close to the horse trailer we’d brought before it laid down and went to sleep.

“People cheered. We hauled it away and relocated it no problem.”

Most of his moose missions went fairly smooth with one notable exception, says Madonna Luers, his wife as well as the public communications director for the Fish and Wildlife Department’s Eastern Region.

“There’s the last moose he dealt with,” she said. “The one in the trailer that kicked him in the face when he was trying to give it a reversal drug – that one landed him in the ER!”

Last fall, in the sunset of his career, Myers got one more shot at a moose.

He hit the big-game hunting jackpot by beating the high odds of drawing a second deer tag in Washington and elk and mule deer tags in Idaho. To top it off, his 19 preference points did the trick in drawing one of Washington’s once-in-a-lifetime moose tags.

“It was quite a windfall,” he said, noting that he filled the tags after weeks of scouting and hunting.

Being a wildlife researcher paid off. The several freezers he’s acquired over the years to temporarily store critter parts including elk fetuses and whole game for necropsies were suddenly put to use for a bounty of meat for the table.

“I was kind of making up for lost time,” he said. “Getting out checking hunters and collecting data took the place of actually hunting and recreating for many years.

“I don’t regret that. How many people get to be out where people are recreating and call it their office?”