Helicopter in Harding Co scares cattle while looking for nests

A Harding County family who filed a formal complaint with the FAA after a helicopter flying low over their private land scared cattle through the fence still hasn’t been compensated by the company responsible for the damages.

In a letter to the Flight Standards District Office, Pine and Tami Gilbert, representing Gilbert Cattle Co., described a March 25 incident where a helicopter flew low over their private calving pasture, “bouncing in and out, up and down, around the rocks.”

The Gilberts thought it looked like the chopper was hunting coyotes. But it wasn’t.

By flying so close to the ground and erratically dropping down near the cattle, the helicopter spooked the cattle, causing most of them to run to the pasture edge. Many piled through the fence.

Cows and calves were injured. When it was all said and done, two calves died, several cows were hurt and several pairs had to be put back in the barn to mother up again. Fence also had to be repaired.

The Gilberts immediately called their sheriff, who was able to ascertain that the helicopter was landing nearby in Bowman, North Dakota. He had a deputy hold the pilot at the airport so he could meet with him personally.

Harding County Sheriff Wyatt Sabo said he spoke with those on board the plane, at the airport. The pilot told him they were looking for eagles’ nests in the area.

“We don’t have much for eagles nests here,” said Sabo, adding that aircraft bothering livestock hasn’t been an issue since he’s been sheriff, and he hopes this is a one-time thing.

“They told me they weren’t flying low over any houses. I told them those guys weren’t worried about their houses, it was their livestock. The helicopter was running their livelihood.”

The pilot first denied flying in that area, but by looking at the flight plan, the sheriff was able to determine that, indeed, the copter had flown over Eagle’s Nest Butte. Three people on board included the pilot, an eagle biologist and a representative from Apex Clean Energy, said Tami. Cattle on two neighboring ranches were also spooked by the helicopter, said Tami.

The pilot told Sabo he did not see the cattle, but said he saw mule deer near the butte.

“I told him there were probably 1,000 head of cows just in that area he flow over.”

The following day, the helicopter flew again. They called and asked Sabo what they should do differently. “I said stay high enough not to bother cattle,” he said.

There were no further complaints, Sabo said.

The Gilberts are hoping this doesn’t happen again. “We want something protecting landowners, protecting our private property rights, prohibiting this from happening to us again or to others,” said Tami.

Mark Mauersberger, a manager with Bowman Wind, a subsidiary of Apex Clean Energy, said his company has been developing a wind project in the area since 2015. “We signed up our first landowners in 2017,” he said.

The goal is to “wrap up” land the acquisition/lease phase this spring in order to move into the permitting stage, he said.

“We have to do two years of avian surveys, we also have to make sure there are no cultural issues, that kind of thing,” he said. For example, a South Dakota wind project had to avoid protected species like the Dakota Skipper butterfly, he said.

Eagle Environmental is a subcontractor who was hired by Apex to check for nests, etc, in the area in and around the proposed wind farm. Eagles Nest Butte, where the Gilberts’ cattle were spooked, is not within the proposed wind farm.

“We go outside the project boundary to make sure it doesn’t overlap into our footprint,” said Mauersberger, adding that he was “troubled” to hear about the Gilberts’ concerns.

His company awaits the final sheriff’s report, he said, adding that he welcomes discussion with Gilbert to ascertain the most appropriate next steps.

“Obviously we want to make sure we follow all rules and guidelines, and that our subcontractors do the same.”

When asked if his company would change its protocol to require their staff and contractors to ask permission before flying low over private property, he did not respond definitively

“Obviously this is a situation we don’t want to have duplicated. My antennae will go up to make sure that there are a wide swath of notifications.”

Mauersberger said that if he or those under him asked permission from a landowner to fly over private property and were denied access, that he would “honor their request.”

“Our goal is not to interrupt farmer and rancher activity. We don’t want to come into a community and cause problems. I’m going to mention this to pilots in the future.”

Tami has met with the Bowman and Harding County commissioners in order to see what kind of protections and privacy landowners can expect in regard to the airspace above their property.

“Two calves and some crippled cows aren’t going to put us out of business, but it sure could someone just starting out and fighting to stay afloat,” said Tami.

“This is private, deeded ground, and we seem to have no say in any of this,” said the Gilberts in their letter. “We also find it frustrating that we are not even in the direct area of the wind farm, yet here we sit with the first collateral damages.”