Putting the wild back into wildlife

A few years ago, LightHawk was contacted by Wolf Haven International, a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation organization that provides a sanctuary for wolves and also participates in breeding programs and the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program. They needed help transporting the wolves to their new homes.

“FedEx and UPS had been able to handle these transports up until a few years back when airline security changed,” says Greg Bedinger, LightHawk’s pilot outreach manager. “We were able to connect a volunteer pilot who flies a Pilatus PC-12 and within a week we were moving the wolves.”

Since then, there have been several wildlife transport flights, with volunteer pilots moving endangered animals to new homes or back into their natural habitats.

Only bigger aircraft are flying wolves as they require the largest kennels. “The TBM can’t handle those flights — it isn’t big enough,” he says.

Pilots who own TBMs and other smaller planes have been instrumental in transporting falcons and other small animals back to their natural habitats.

The animal flights are “pretty exciting for the people who are doing them,” Bedinger says.

The very first endangered wolf flight was flown by LightHawk board member Tom Haas and Janice Newman — in Haas’s brand new Pilatus PC-12. “We were flying back from Denver with the plane on Saturday and the next day, we were pulling out the seats to make room for the wolves,” Haas recalls.

That evening, the two flew from their home base in Portsmouth, N.H., to Manassas, Va. to meet representatives of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and three wolves who would fly to a new home at the Wildlife West Nature Park in Albuquerque, N.M.

The next morning, as the two were performing their preflight, the handlers arrived with the wolves in three large crates. “The windows were covered with burlap so the wolves couldn’t see out and become scared by their new surroundings,” he recalls. “They weren’t drugged, they were just calmly sitting in the back of their crates. We didn’t hear a peep or a yip out of them the entire flight.”

After the six-hour flight, the team landed in Albuquerque. “The folks who met us at the airport were so excited to see us. There were lots of smiles and photos,” he says.

Making the eastbound return trip was a 9-year-old female wolf who had suffered the loss of her mate and then pups just months before their scheduled release back into the wild. She was successfully delivered to the Wolf Conservation Center in New York to find a new mate.

Since then, Haas and Newman have donated several flights to transport wolves. Recently, they flew a female wolf from the Columbus Zoo in Ohio to Wolf Haven in Tenino, Wash., then moved another female to a facility near St. Louis.

They aren’t alone in these efforts. Volunteer pilots Hal Hayden of Prescott, Ariz., and Steve Knaebel of Mexico City recently donated a flight in Hayden’s Beechcraft A36 to move a wolf from Carlsbad, N.M., to Sonora, Mexico. And volunteer pilots Jack Long of Austin, Texas, Joy Covey of Woodside, Calif., John Bell of Woodside, Calif., Zach Huston of Denver and Randy Luskey of Englewood, Colo., also have flown wolves in their aircraft.

Helping the wolves is a point of pride for LightHawk.

“This is a species teetering on the edge of extinction,” said LightHawk Executive Director (and volunteer pilot) Rudy Engholm. “We’re proud that LightHawk and its volunteer pilots have a hand in helping save them.”

The Mexican wolf was officially listed as endangered in 1976, and had become “functionally” extinct in the Southwest. To prevent the complete extinction of this species, a breeding program was developed to reintroduce the wolves into the wild. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan in 1982 and in March 1998 the first captive-reared Mexican wolves were released into the wild, proving that it would be possible to redevelop the population in the Southwest.

For more information: FWS.gov

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