Light helicopters are increasingly used by government agencies, park rangers and commercial ranchers to manage and protect cattle, indigenous and migratory animal populations.
The US Bureau of Land Management uses helicopters to manage the estimated 96,000 wild horses and burros that roam federally managed land in 10 western states. Commercial ranchers use light helicopters for mustering their herds. In fact, ranching is the third largest market for the light helicopter industry.
Mustering, or cattle drives as they are known in the US, can occur as often as 3-4 times per year. The benefit of using helicopters is to reduce animal stress and round-up times. This can result in 3-4% greater animal weight following a cattle drive, which is the equivalent of selling an extra 4 head per 100. The gains add up quickly as average drives can involve thousands of animals.
The two issues that limit the use of helicopters to only the largest ranches and game parks are safety and cost.
Safety is an issue due to the dangerous combination of low-altitude flight and open rotors. Additional flight training is typically required for mustering, but even so an average of 15 mustering pilots die each year in Australia.
Cost is the other issue. A light helicopter is expensive to acquire and maintain, and incurs the cost of a trained pilot and technician. It also requires access to aviation fuel and maintenance facilities – both of which can be problematic in the field.