In The News

When critters and aircraft clash
Aug 17th, 2011

By Debbie Coakley

While workers at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) this summer were able to transport 150 diamondback terrapin turtles from a runway to a nearby beach, getting rid of wildlife hazards at airports isn’t always so straightforward.

The turtles, which migrate annually from Jamaica Bay, near JFK, to nest on the beach, are just one type of wildlife that can pose hazards at airports, says Cody Baciuska, a certified airport wildlife biologist and president of Loomacres, a six-year-old wildlife management company based in Warnerville, N.Y. He says other common nuisances across the country include birds such as Canada geese and animals such as deer, coyotes, and foxes. Many airports take an aggressive approach at scaring birds away, but those other critters can be significant hazards, too, especially in rural areas.

Birds can be dangerous at airports, but they’re not the only critters that cause trouble. Deer, coyote, foxes, and many other wildlife species can wreak havoc at airports, especially those located in rural areas.

While this Upland Sand Piper looks harmless sitting on a taxiway light, a flock of them could be dangerous for planes. Photos courtesy of Loomacres.

“Numerous techniques are available to airports to mitigate wildlife hazards,” says Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and technical operations for Washington-based Airports Council International (ACI). “The goal is to eliminate the threat to human health and safety that aircraft collisions with wildlife—called ‘wildlife strikes’—pose to aviation and the traveling public.”

All airports have at least one wildlife attractant and most have several, notes Steve Fairaizl, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-qualified wildlife biologist who in 2006, with his wife Gale, co-founded Airport Wildlife Consultants (AWC) in Cave Creek, Ariz. “Wildlife is considered hazardous if their habitats are within five miles of an airport.”

Where to Get Help
Loomacres and AWC provide a variety of services to mitigate wildlife hazards at airports, including conducting a 12-month wildlife assessment. Airports also can hire the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services to do the assessment. When an assessment is completed, the FAA may require an airport to develop a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan.

The companies also conduct wildlife hazard management and wildlife identification training required annually by the FAA for airports with commercial passenger traffic. Baciuska notes that while extensive wildlife management programs may not be necessary at small general aviation (GA) airports, the FAA still encourages them. For example, Baciuska conducts on-site, airport-specific training. “Oftentimes, employees at airports from the surrounding areas are invited, particularly if they are small and do not have the budget to do their own training.”

Necessary Measures
Baciuska and Fairaizl take a three-pronged approach to mitigating wildlife hazards: preventive, nonlethal, and lethal. They say habitat modification is the backbone of wildlife management, while lethal methods are used as a last resort.

The wildlife biologists and ACI’s Oswald offer the following tips for managing wildlife at airports:

■Hire a company with wildlife biologists who have experience working with airports. Baciuska and Fairaizl both previously worked for USDA’s Wildlife Services conducting wildlife management at airports. They now consult across the country and have handled critters at airports ranging from deer to alligators to coyotes to bald eagles.
■Eliminate food, water, and shelter so animals go elsewhere. Maintain grass at an FAA-recommended height of 6 to12 inches, cut down or prune trees, and drain water from or install floating covers over stormwater ponds.
■Use herbicides and plant growth regulators (PGRs) to control wildlife-attracting vegetation. For example, use broadleaf herbicides to help establish a preferred grass species. Nonselective herbicides work in areas that can’t be mowed, such as along fences, ditches, or steep banks with riprap for erosion control. Be sure to follow state guidelines. Consider that some airports have found that it costs less to spray PGRs than it does to mow.
■Install fencing. The FAA recommends an 8-foot chain-link fence topped with a three-stranded barbed wire outrigger at a 45-degree angle. Fences need a 4-foot underground skirt underneath so animals cannot dig under them.
■Because small GA airports may not have the funding for 8-foot fences, specialized electric fences, primarily used to deter deer, are good alternatives.
■Trap animals by baiting a box trap with dog or cat food. Release them far from the airport. Follow local, state, and federal regulations regarding live capture and relocation.
■Use pyrotechnics such as screamers and bangers, which make a loud noise. Baciuska’s company has a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to sell pyrotechnics to airports. He notes that small, privately held GA airports need an ATF license to use pyrotechnics and must meet requirements to store them. Government-run airports do not need the permit but must meet storage requirements. Airports must complete a Wildlife Control Statement.
■Employ lethal means of managing wildlife as a last resort after nonlethal methods have failed. Lethal controls may include shooting with firearms or using specialized traps.
■Keep in mind that wildlife control requires coordination with regulatory agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Companies such as Loomacres and AWC can assist with application, permitting, and reporting procedures.
Baciuska says it’s best to use a variety of methods to mitigate wildlife hazards at airports. “If you use just one, animals will get used to it,” he says. “Our job is to provide a safe operating environment for the aircraft and people using it. We can do this and protect animals at the same time.”

Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer in Warrenville, Ill.

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