DOC reveals details of mass helicopter operation

by Peter Newport - Nov 08, 2023

Crux has discovered the mission of multiple helicopters that flew over Queenstown early yesterday morning (November 7). It turns out the choppers were on their way to a predator control operation in the Fiordland National Park.

The helicopters were being operated by HeliOtago out of Dunedin and their pilots were disappointed the Department of Conservation had not done a better job of letting residents know what was happening.

"We are just the contractors," one of the pilots told Crux today. "As far as we were concerned we were just on our way to work."

HeliOtago boss Graeme Gale confirmed to Crux it was up to DOC to inform the public about the operation.

At Crux we spent a couple of hours yesterday morning asking both police staff and the national rescue coordination centre for information on the helicopters, but they, also, knew nothing. Our assumption was that such a large number of aircraft - at least eight flying relatively fast and low - signalled a major rescue or similar emergency.

A mass of online social media comments speculated that the helicopters were either part of a movie crew, part of an incentive programme for Amway, carrying rich guests on their way to luxury lodges, involved with maintenance for the Routeburn track and so on. Today, when asked by Crux, DOC released this statement:

"The helicopters seen near Queenstown on Tuesday morning relate to DOC’s work to protect vulnerable native species such as kea, kākā and rock wren from predators like stoats, possums and rats in the Hollyford Valley in Fiordland National Park. Helicopters are used in DOC’s predator control operations to help control introduced predators by aerially applying biodegradable bait pellets.

"This is a vital part of DOC’s work programme to save vulnerable species from predation. Without protection, we risk losing the unique natural heritage and biodiversity within Fiordland National Park.

"The first stage of this operation, which involved applying non-toxic bait pellets as pre-feed, took place yesterday (7 November).

"As part of our consultation and notification process, DOC consults with hapu, iwi and key stakeholders, including landowners adjacent to the operational area. The operation was notified in the Otago Daily Times, Southland Times and The Southland App on October 18 and a notification went directly to a list of around 400 stakeholders and people who conduct business in or near that area of the national park.

"Alerts are also live on the DOC website, signage erected, and people stationed at relevant track entry points, campgrounds, other visitor areas and huts to advise the public while the operation is underway. People booked on the Routeburn track were also notified.

"The operation went ahead successfully, and the next phase is scheduled to take place in the next good weather window, a minimum of 5 days out from the pre-feed phase. This next phase will include the application of biodegradable bait pellets containing 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) to target rats, stoats, and possums."

Crux has asked DOC if they can be a bit more liberal with their notifications in future. Crux would also like to acknowledge the great work that the HeliOtago pilots do for the community, especially as operators of our medical/rescue helicopters that link the tiny Lakes District Hospital with both Invercargill and Dunedin.

Main image: A FlightRadar24 screenshot of some of the helicopters flying into the Greenstone Valley yesterday morning after overflying Queenstown suburbs.

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