Resilience is a key trait for pilots and nonprofits, and both manifested themselves through conservation organization LightHawk in the second year of the pandemic. On Monday, LightHawk released its annual report noting the challenges and successes of fiscal 2021 as the group moved forward on its mission to protect the environment.
Adapting to the pandemic
Just as animals in the wild adapt to their surroundings, so did LightHawk when the pandemic hit the group. They lost 10 friends, leaders and pilots, including the chairman of the board, Brigadier General Lawrence “Bud” Sittig. Despite this, they continued their mission of protecting the environment.
“We spent a lot of time on video calls,” said Jim Becker, chairman of the board of LightHawk. “LightHawk has moved to a fully distributed organizational model with staff in nine different states. Despite these obstacles, LightHawk continued to prove that aviation can advance conservation in several ways. Our team has developed new techniques for video surveillance and improved transport of endangered species, to name a few. We have also added new senior executives, pilots and board members. “
LightHawk in numbers
According to the annual report, LightHawk flew 219 missions, added 32 new volunteer pilots and transported 17,488 animals.
Flights along the Colorado River and footage of the extremely low water levels in Lake Mead were collected by LightHawk pilots. The lake provides water to much of the population of the western United States. Some of the photographs collected on these flights were shocking enough to inspire local media to write stories reflecting the impact of the drought on local communities.
What is LightHawk?
The all-volunteer organization is based in Fort Collins, Colorado, and operates in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Their mission is conservation through the observation of rivers, estuaries and coasts to identify threats and ensure the survival of species. The organization is a 501 (c) (3) organization and is 100 percent funded by donations.
Relocating endangered species was also a key mission for the LightHawk pilots. Air transport is often less stressful for animals than land transport, resulting in a higher survival rate.
At one point, there were more white abalones in the sky than in the ocean, as 16,402 of the threatened seashells were transported to Southern California for release into restored kelp forests and rocky reefs. where they will contribute to the recovery of their species.
The transport was carried out in five flights operated in partnership with the Bay Foundation and the Davis Bodega Marine Lab at the University of California.
“If it hadn’t been for LightHawk, we would have had to drive the animals, which can lead to higher mortality due to the long journey time,” said Kathy Swiney, of the NOAA SW Fisheries Science Center.
With the activities of field biologists severely limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, LightHawk planes have also been used to locate endangered bird species, including the California condor. LightHawk pilots used aerial telemetry to determine the location of the birds. The plane was also used to transport juvenile birds from Idaho to the California wilderness for restocking.
In one case, a LightHawk plane was used to transport a condor with a broken leg to a specialist vet several hundred miles away for emergency surgery.
Birds and crustaceans weren’t the only animals LightHawk carried, as several Mexican Cubs born in captivity were airlifted to be placed in wild dens. Mexican wolves were considered extinct in the wild until their reintroduction in 1998 in Arizona and New Mexico. The release of young to wild dens is called cross-hosting and is done to increase the population and maintain the genetic diversity of recovering species.
“LightHawk flights have had a ‘just in time’ impact in endangered species transportations, filling a critical gap created when other options were not available,” said Michele Rutledge, CEO of LightHawk. “We are financially strong and are embarking on a thoughtful strategic planning process to propel our next 40+ years toward sustainability. “