- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

HOWARD, S.D. (AP) - Brad Baumgartner’s intuition kicked in when the airplane’s wings tilted hard in the wind.

“They’ve got one,” said Baumgartner, a wildlife damage specialist, a.k.a. “state trapper” for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department. “When he turns hard like that, you know they saw one.”

Soon, from the CB radio inside Baumgartner’s truck, the pilot relayed that a coyote was located on a quarter of land southeast of Howard. It was the same quarter of land where a calf was killed by coyotes recently, which instigated the recent joint aerial-ground hunt, The Daily Republic (https://bit.ly/1q4Bgb9 ) reported.

The yellow, two-seat plane swooped in low to sort through a thick mess of cattails in search of the four-legged perpetrator.

“This is a belly crawling little-bugger,” said the pilot, Tony DeCino, an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services, over the radio.

Tactical measures then scared the coyote from its hiding ground, and Baumgartner coached DeCino to its whereabouts.

Behind DeCino in the plane was Blake Bappe, another of GF&P;’s 27 statewide full-time wildlife damage specialists. Bappe, of Mitchell, is a certified aerial gunner who, with a few shots from a 12-gauge shotgun, killed the sprinting coyote.

“We won,” Baumgartner said.

For all three involved, it was a job well done to help alleviate the state’s growing coyote problem. And, it justifies GF&P;’s estimated $165,000 decision to fund a full-time pilot and plane dedicated to aerial predator hunting in eastern South Dakota for the first time in more than a decade.

The plane is owned by U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services and is stationed in Huron, but it is fully funded through Game, Fish & Parks.

A response from a survey of landowners and producers who utilized Animal Damage Control program services helped the approval of the plane’s funding last fall.

“We got all this feedback, 80 percent were happy, but a lot of people wrote in comments,” said Keith Fisk, Game, Fish and Parks Wildlife Damage Program administrator, “and one of the most commented factors was they’d like to see more aerial predator control service and staffing levels.

“That’s one of the main reasons we were able to get this plane, was our agency was able to make that funding commitment and allow our staff to work the time needed on these problems across the state.”

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About four weeks ago, David Callies, who lives southeast of Howard, found a dead calf on a quarter of his land.

Enter the wildlife damage specialists.

They work with landowners and producers statewide to reduce wildlife damage, such as, in this case, livestock losses.

In fiscal year 2015 - which runs from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015 - GF&P; spent more than $2.35 million to operate the wildlife damage management programs in South Dakota and responded to more than 2,600 requests, which impacted nearly 2,000 landowners and producers.

Last year was a 15-year high for total coyotes removed by wildlife damage specialists at 7,623 with 1,346 requests for assistance. It was the second-most spent on coyote control in the past 15 years at $730,690.

Baumgartner, 48, of Sioux Falls, has worked with landowners and producers in the state for more than 20 years. His job, and especially chasing coyotes, “is intense,” he said.

“You love what you do, but there’s a lot of pressure that goes with it,” Baumgartner said. “If shooting coyotes was easy, everyone would do it and we wouldn’t exist.”

Between Baumgartner’s ground pursuit and the plane’s aerial eyes, GF&P; on Thursday removed four coyotes in Miner County.

The first, that “belly-crawling, little-bugger,” as DeCino called it, may have been associated with the death of Callies’ calf. Callies said this is the second straight year a calf had been killed by coyotes on his property.

“We’d be lost without them,” Callies said of the wildlife damage specialists.

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In 2014, GF&P; acquired a second plane to help with its aerial hunting program. Prior to that, Spearfish stationed the only plane used across the state, aside from any privately contracted work that was hired by the GF&P; for predator control. That meant landowners and producers sometimes were forced to wait until the plane was available to fly across the state, from Spearfish to East River, to help with a hunt.

But when the new plane was given to the state in 2014, GF&P; was able to provide 100 to 200 hours of aerial hunting services in eastern South Dakota through privately contracted pilots.

“We really struggled with that over the years to get someone over the years to work for us at the right time,” Fisk said. “The big challenge is the people we were trying to contract have full-time jobs, so there were time constraints for those pilots. So trying to get effective aerial predator control across the state is almost impossible.”

So when the survey sent out to landowners and producers showed more efforts were needed to address coyote problems, Fisk discussed solutions with the then-newly appointed GF&P; Secretary Kelly Hepler. Eventually, it was approved and its services are shared among all wildlife damage specialists in eastern South Dakota via request. The plane should get 500 to 600 hours of hunting time this year, almost tripling the previous availability.

While the plane and pilot are owned and employed by USDA-Wildlife Services, GF&P; funds everything involved at an approximate cost of $165,000 annually. Fisk said that decision was made because DeCino’s training is provided by USDA-Wildlife Services.

DeCino arrived in South Dakota at the end of January to assume his aerial hunting duties. He held the same job in Oregon and is in his ninth year as an aerial hunting pilot. He’s been a flying pilot for 27 years.

He estimated he spends about 30 hours per week actually flying the plane, and he makes trips throughout eastern South Dakota. Earlier this month, he was near Webster on a hunt.

On Thursday, a windy day made his job a little more difficult.

“It challenges your skillset more,” he said.

But that’s part of being an aerial hunting pilot, a job he describes as “bringing to bear all your skills as a hunter and a pilot.”

“You’ve got to be able to successfully manage many tasks at the same time, whether it’s avoiding obstacles and getting the coyotes in a position to get your gunner a shot, it’s all those things,” he said.

Added Fisk: “There are a lot of great pilots out there who have never predator hunted, and they may be able to fly an F-16 jet, but finding someone who has the hunting savvy, knowing where to look for coyotes and knowing how they behave, it takes a talented individual to do that effectively.”

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Bappe was hired by GF&P; in 2009 and is the first wildlife damage specialist based in Mitchell, where he moved in 2013.

Bagging four coyotes Thursday in Miner County was a success, he said, but he doesn’t consider himself a master as an aerial gunner just yet.

“I’ve only been up in the air in South Dakota about eight times,” he said. “They say by the time you get to 2,000 coyotes, you know what you’re doing.”

Last March, Bappe decided to get certified as an aerial gunner, which required traveling to Cedar City, Utah, for a week of training. Half the course was safety education, while the other was actually learning to shoot from the plane.

GF&P; has seven certified gunners, three of whom work in eastern South Dakota. There’s also a full-time federal gunner who works with the plane in Spearfish.

“A lot of people cannot handle the maneuvering because they get sick,” Bappe said. “You need a good stomach for being in the plane.”

Both Bappe and Baumgartner said in the spring, it’s more about going after a specific pair of coyotes, rather than worrying about tallying large numbers of kills. At this time of year, coyotes are known to pair up and claim a territory, so breaking up the pair can do wonders.

Bappe said in the winter, it’s not uncommon to shoot 30 or 40 on a good day.

Thursday was less-than-ideal conditions for spring-time aerial hunting with wind gusts reaching 30 mph, but Baumgartner was ready to go at the break of sunrise to be ground support searching for coyotes.

About 30 minutes after the plane arrived from its post in Huron, the first coyote was killed. Baumgartner was relieved.

“These coyotes, they’re not just a little educated,” Baumgartner said. “They’ve got a master’s degree on survival.”

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Information from: The Daily Republic, https://www.mitchellrepublic.com

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