Flying Wildlife With Jim Wortham

Nicola Tims
December 9, 2019

Conservation and the Role of Pilot Biologists

In the lower 48 of the United States, there are 11 pilots with a particular combination of skills. Not only are they required to have an advanced degree in the sciences, but they are required to have a commercial pilot’s license. Not just any pilot either, but a bush pilot capable of off-airport flying. Their work requires them to fly low, across rural landscapes and international borders, playing a crucial role in conservation efforts.

For 23 years, Jim Wortham has been one of these wildlife biologist-pilots. He works on projects ranging from wildlife and specialised surveying to natural disaster response and law enforcement. Yet, some of his most exciting work comes from his role in the capture and relocation of wildlife. It is the type of work the majority of us cannot do.

Who else would we be able to transport a misplaced 9.5 ft long crocodile across the Gulf of Mexico back to the Everglades?


A Lone Croc and a 5ft Tall Bird

Jim Wortham with Plane

No one knew how the American crocodile, Cleatus, arrived in the Dry Tortugas in 2003. The Dry Tortugas is a remote national park made up of a group of islands 70 mi/113 km from Key West. Cleatus is the only crocodile ever to live here. Only through DNA testing did scientists discover Cleatus was a crocodile species from the Everglades. In 2017, Jim flew this crocodile, who had made a comfortable home for itself in Fort Jefferson’s castle-like moat, back to the Everglades.

But this only skims the surface of the work Jim does. In 2013, he relocated captive-reared whooping cranes into the wild. It was part of the conservation effort to pull the bird from the brink of extinction. These migratory birds are the largest in North American, standing at 5ft tall, and have been an endangered species since 1967. Jim flew a direct flight from a captive rearing facility in Maryland to land in the marshes of South Louisiana to release these birds, a job requiring an amphibious aircraft. While he flew, everyone on board kept utterly silent, as to not acclimate the captive birds to humans.

During 2018, Jim began flying an apex predator to an island within a national park unlike any other.


Isle Royale

In the northwest corner of Lake Superior, near Michigan’s border to Canada, lies a collection of remote islands.

Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and the third-largest by volume. Because of this, it behaves more like an inland sea than a lake. Within this great lake lies Isle Royale, an island 45 miles long and 9 miles wide. It is a wilderness of forests, lakes, and waterways. Isle Royale is one of 450 smaller islands that create the remote island archipelago that is Isle Royale National Park. For the past 65 years, grey wolves have roamed here.

In 2018, there were only two genetically related wolves left on the island.

Isle Royale has a unique ecosystem, and the only way new wolves could enter is by an ice bridge. Depending on the time of year, an ice bridge connects Isle Royale to mainland Michigan. However, the chances of new wolves arriving are low. Without an apex predator, the moose population would grow. Left unchecked, indirect effects on vegetation and forest communities were cause for concern. These growing concerns resulted in a project by the U.S. National Park Service to increase wolf numbers on Isle Royale and restore the predator/prey dynamic.

Photo-for-Wolf-Relocation-lores

In August 2018, the first phase of a 3-5-year effort began. It is a complex operation, one that requires not only the capture, relocation, and introduction of wolves from the surrounding regions but continual monitoring. It is the type of project that requires extensive planning, and a bush pilot that understood the work.

Over the last two years, Jim has flown 5 gray wolves to Isle Royale from similar habitats. In a Kodiak seaplane, Jim transported wolves from Minnesota and Michigan to the remote island. The region itself is unpredictable, where a change in weather results in a change in ‘sea’ state. As much of his work requires low flying, this region offers its own set of challenges requiring an attunement to the environment. Flying at low altitudes leaves no room for error, where a sudden downdraft or microburst is particularly dangerous.


When Pilots Used Payphones

Before Spidertracks, flight plans and flight following consisted of an expected location and time arrival which could be several hours or even days in the future.  Because many missions were in remote areas, communications were limited to temperamental portable sat phone or radio-relays by airliners passing overhead.  If Jim were delayed, his monitoring team could not be sure if he encountered a weather delay or something more deadly.  These mission monitoring efforts left a lot to the unknown.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was one of the early adopters of Spidertracks, using the technology on all their planes. Pilot biologists have a suite of aircraft to use at their disposal, including wheeled and amphibious Kodiak, twin-engine Partenavia, and Cessna 206’s. Their work is relatively autonomous, and they often fly across remote areas with projects taking them into different countries.

Kodiak-Sea-Plane-lores

Survey work is a typical job for pilot biologists. It requires pilots to fly low, as the work requires them to see clearly for long distances. Studying the health and habitats of migratory wildlife brings Jim into Canada as well as Mexico and central America, as migratory species are shared resources. Sometimes Jim would be gone for weeks, and a lot of the time, there was no support personnel in foreign countries.

So, how would a pilot biologist let people back at base know everything was OK?

The answer is payphones and, if available, internet cafes.

Before Spidertracks, this was protocol.

Today, a pilot biologist’s trip is more consistently monitored, effectively tracked, and communication back-and-forth is much simpler and more efficient. It is not unusual for Jim to land his plane and camp in remote locations due to logistics or weather conditions. When there’s no cell phone coverage and no airports nearby, Spidertxt ensures that his team knows what is going on.

Besides tracking, Spidertxt is vital, especially with amphibious aircraft, where pilots can land almost anywhere. Without immediate and effective communication, monitors would have no way of knowing for sure if a landing was intentional. The Spidertxt preprogrammed “Everything OK” message is essential for landings in Jim’s line of work. Spidertrack’s tracking and monitoring capability are giving pilot biologists a leg up so they can continue to play this critical role in conservation - safely.

To find out how Spidertracks can keep you and your team flying safely, talk to our friendly team today.

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