Getting a Handle on Wildlife

More data means a more thorough analysis

The January 2009 landing on the Hudson River by US Airways Flight 1549 following a series of bird strikes on takeoff led to a public outcry over how serious the wildlife problem was around U.S. airports. In fact, however, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been tracking the issue for nearly 20 years. One result of the Flight 1549 incident is there has been an increase in reporting by airports, particularly Part 139 facilities. This is helping FAA in its efforts to provide guidance to the industry. One area that remains a concern: general aviation airports, which have fewer resources and historically report less.

USDA, through its Airport Wildlife Hazards Program (AWHP), tracks and reports annually a National Wildlife Strike Database to FAA. The records have always been open to the public, though not as transparently as some thought necessary. Since the 1549 episode, the U.S. DOT has called for the data to be readily accessible.

Michael J. Begier is the national coordinator for the USDA wildlife program. He explains, “FAA is not a traditional natural resources agency; their mission is safe flight, basically. The wildlife problem at airports is termed a human/wildlife conflict. We’re the group in the government to help the American public when there’s some sort of a conflict with wildlife.

“One thing that’s pretty interesting is there was this feeling that once the public sees it that it could cause a suppression and people might not report as much information. That has not borne out; in fact, since the 1549 incident, there’s been a big increase in reporting, which is really good.

“A big reason we want more reporting is you can’t fix it if you haven’t measured it. A wildlife biologist can’t really help the airport unless you know what they’re hitting. It’s one thing to say we hit a bird today; it’s another thing to say a plane hit a bird, we collected some feathers; we sent them to the Smithsonian feather ID lab; and it came back that this was a bald eagle.

“That kind of information is very useful to the biologist, who can then use that information and make more informed guidance for the airport to make a better decision on management. Maybe there’s something going on at the airport and that’s why eagles are there.”

According to USDA, the 7,516 reported wildlife strikes to U.S. civil aircraft in 2008 brought the 19-year total of wildlife strikes between 1990 and 2008 to 89,727. Birds (97.4 percent) and terrestrial mammals (2.1 percent) were struck 72 percent of the time at or below 500 feet AGL and 92 percent of the time at or below 3,000 feet AGL.

Begier relates that most reporting comes from Part 139 airports, with GA facilities accounting for some 6-7 percent. “It’s something we’re concerned about,” he says. “GA facilities don’t have as much infrastructure — like fencing. So we see more incidents of deer strikes. Perhaps they don’t have the resources to manage the property; there may be more water features; more encroachment of brush and woodlands. There’s a lot more habitat a lot closer to the runway.”

For an airport, a central component of getting a handle on the local wildlife problem is hiring an FAA-approved wildlife biologist to assess conditions and recommend a plan, which may be eligible for federal funding, says Begier.

“What they would seek to do at an airport is to basically assess what’s going on,” he explains. “They may look for very specific attractants and how those are laid out at the airport. What they’re doing is informing the airport — this is what you’re dealing with. This is why it’s dangerous or not. And here are some basic recommendations that you can use to reduce the potential for a problem. Then it’s up to the airport to act on that information.”

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