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Collision course
Wildlife pose threat to Bishop air traffic

THE FLINT JOURNAL FIRST EDITION Thursday, January 19, 2006
Elizabeth Shaw [email protected] • 810.766.6311

FLINT - Forget bomb-toting terrorists. On a recent sunny morning, a public safety officer at Bishop Airport had his eye on some wayward mallards, a hungry hawk and a lovesick buck.

"Animals are just like people. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," Officer Mike Chilson joked as he pointed out signs of would-be invaders along 25,000 feet of wildlife barrier surrounding 1,600 acres of airport property in Flint and Flint Township.

That might sound less than serious, but there's nothing silly about the hazards posed by wildlife to air travel safety.

In fact, wildlife hazard management is a federally regulated program that involves the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, state Department of Natural Resources and others in ecological studies, specialized training and detailed plans of action.

Last year, U.S. airports reported 5,853 bird strikes, 130 mammal strikes and seven reptile strikes on their runways or airspace, according to the FAA National Wildlife Strike Database.

Of those, 104 bird strikes and two mammal strikes occurred at Michigan airports.

As Bishop's wildlife specialist, Chilson - assisted by other airport firefighters - works to make sure those strikes happen as rarely as possible.

"The problems have always been there, but the awareness wasn't. It's mostly been in the last five years that it's become fairly important, with more programs, training and funding available," said Deputy Airport Director Michael Trout.

It's a never-ending battle of wits with the local wildlife, carefully balancing air safety with environmental concerns.

"We deal with things you probably wouldn't even think about," said Trout. "Like every time it rains, the worms on the runways are a smorgasbord for birds. "We have to go out and sweep (the worms) off into the grass with the 20-foot broomer used to clear snow."

The airport's anti-animal arsenal is an ever-changing bag of tricks that includes such nonlethal methods as shotgun "crackers" - explosive rounds that don't have any shot - and a plastic owl "scarecrow" propped on a rack of approach lights at the end of a runway.

This year, Chilson is hoping to add a vehicle-mounted speaker system to broadcast bird distress calls.

Officials also have discussed hiring a Kalamazoo falconer, whose trained red-tailed hawk has been effective in spooking flocks from other Michigan airports.

"We've tried all kinds of things, even old folklore remedies. Once we even got bags of hair from a barber shop and tied it to the fence," said Chilson, chuckling. "The idea was the scent would scare the deer and coyote. It didn't work, but it made a nice mess."

On this particular day, a half-dozen dig-unders have appeared along one 50-yard stretch of fence line in less than a week's time. Dug by coyotes, the holes are also dotted with the prints of raccoon, rabbit and other small intruders.

"We had two holes at the south end I could've crawled under myself. And that happened in less than three days," said Chilson.

Right now, the biggest challenge is a huge beaver dam at the west end of the airport, where the now-bulging creek threatens to lure ducks and other migratory flocks this spring. He also is plotting how to safely move a blue heron that has taken up residence in the creek.

By federal law, all certified airports must have some form of wildlife control plan in place. Trout said Bishop's program really stepped into high gear in 2000, when the airport underwent its first comprehensive wildlife assessment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA study analyzed all 7 square miles of airport property, including 1,200 acres of flat, grass terrain and 400 acres of woods, swamps and creeks. The study identified wildlife habitat and species populations, then offered specific recommendations for control.

"Every airport has different issues," said Trout.

"In Florida, it's alligators. Dulles in Washington, D.C., has black bear problems. Here, we have deer and coyote."

Large flocking birds like gulls pose the most common hazard at Bishop, Trout said, followed by small flocking birds, such as starlings.

The first line of defense is a newly erected 10-foot-high wildlife barrier fence topped with three strands of barbed wire running inside an existing 6-foot-high perimeter fence.

That 200-acre linear "buffer zone" is a natural habitat, home to coyotes, deer, rabbits, squirrels and other small animals.

"We keep a close eye on what's out there in the buffer. But inside the wildlife fence is another story. That's our area of operation, and any animal inside it is considered an immediate safety threat," said Lt. Dan Owen, who heads the airport's firefighting and public safety unit of which Chilson is a member.

"Animals are extremely fast. They can go from the fence to the runway in a heartbeat. So we have to respond immediately, just like we're handling a fire alarm."

Deer populations temporarily increased after post-Sept. 11 homeland security regulations banned public hunting on airport property, but the new higher fence has mostly ended deer intrusions.

"But still, during hunting season and every time a new building goes in near the airport, the animals get pressured to try to get on the airfield," said Owen.

In 2004, a pair of bucks got through the fence at the south end of the main airfield and lay down, unnoticed, on a runway - directly in the path of a plane preparing for takeoff.

The flight was aborted, and no one on board was injured. But the collision tore off the left landing gear door and dented the right side of the plane.

"It was one of those pivotal points that really changed our thinking about what we still needed to do," said Owen. "We've since learned all it takes is a 5-inch gap and a four-point buck can go through it. It was after that we added gratings to cover any gaps between fence posts."

A special permit from the DNR allows Chilson and Owen to shoot deer when necessary. The meat is donated to needy families through the state police or buried as bait to draw coyotes away from sensitive areas.

The next step was making the airport less attractive to animals.

"We try to keep as many natural features as we can because the surrounding vegetation blocks noise and acts as a visual buffer," said Trout. "It's also just nice for people living nearby, so they don't feel like they're living in the middle of an airport."

But within the protected operations zone, grass is cut short and undergrowth cleared to remove wildlife cover and habitat. Dens and burrows must be identified and buried.

Standing water is drained off, culverts are covered and two creeks have been diverted underground to discourage migrating flocks from landing.

The intensified program costs about $25,000 a year and has had a dramatic impact: Bishop had just eight bird strikes in 2005, down from 28 in 2004.

"Wildlife control is just one piece in a huge circle of responsibility," said Owen. "Firefighting is our first priority, but we can't be one-dimensional in our focus. It's all about keeping people safe in ways they might not even be aware of."
 
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