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LB Airport to work with USDA on program to prevent 'wildlife strikes'

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November 21st, 2012
Sean Belk

Christina Jones, assistant director of the South Bay Wildlife Rehab, a nonprofit volunteer organization that cares for California-native wildlife, attempts to handle a hawk caught in a trap at the Long Beach Airport's airfield. United States Department of Agriculture wildlife biologists will be assisting in banding and relocating birds as part of new federal requirements.

The Long Beach Airport has entered into a contract with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services Division to develop a "more formal" program of capturing and relocating wildlife, particularly birds, from the airport. Such measures are taken to prevent collisions between birds and aircraft, incidents referred to as "wildlife strikes."

The Long Beach City Council at its Nov. 13 meeting unanimously approved a $40,000, one-year-contract with the USDA, which has revised its requirements for all airports to "band birds that are captured and relocated" for tracking and scientific purposes, procedures that require "special federal permits," according to airport staff. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also requires that the airport complete a wildlife hazard assessment.

The new contract calls for the USDA's wildlife biologists to work with the airport on a part-time basis to assist in banding and relocating large birds to a more conducive environment, provide technical assistance to airport staff, help prepare the airport's permit report, conduct wildlife monitoring surveys, and aid in developing the airport's wildlife hazard mitigation plan.

Wildlife strikes have become an increasing safety hazard at airports nationwide. The threat gained major attention in 2009, when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed a US Airways airliner in the Hudson River after the plane hit a flock of Canada geese upon taking off from the LaGuardia Airport in New York. More recently, the Air Force Two, carrying Vice President Joe Biden, sustained a wildlife strike earlier this year when the plane was approaching Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.

Nationally, FAA statistics show that wildlife strikes have increased five-fold, rising from 1,770 reported in 1990 to 9,840 reported last year. Such strikes have resulted in at least 24 deaths and 235 injuries in the United States, while causing nearly $625 million in damage per year, according to the FAA.
The rise in wildlife strikes can be attributed to larger wildlife populations that have increased safety risk and the need for more substantive mitigation programs, according to airport officials, who said Long Beach Airport, located close to wetlands habitats and migratory-bird paths, is not immune to the threat.

Earlier this year, for instance, a bird was caught in a corporate jet, causing thousands of dollars in damages to the airplane, said airport officials, who added that the most migrant birds land at the airport during fall and winter months.

"[Relocating wildlife from the airport] actually saves the wildlife and secures aircraft on the airfield," said Mario Rodriguez, director of Long Beach Airport, during the City Council meeting. "It doesn't hurt the animals, and it makes sure that � everybody on the airfield [is] safe." He said both Los Angeles International (LAX) and John Wayne airports have already hired the USDA to assist in their wildlife mitigation programs.

New federal requirements come after Jeffrey B. Guzzetti, assistant inspector general for aviation for the US Department of Transportation, released a report in August that the FAA's oversight and enforcement activities are "not sufficient to ensure airports fully adhere to program requirements or effectively implement their wildlife hazard management plans." The report adds that airport officials contacted in a study stated that they "did not report all known strikes to the database because it was not a requirement." In recent years, the Long Beach Airport has partnered with the South Bay Wildlife Rehab, a nonprofit volunteer operation based in Palos Verdes that has assisted in relocating mostly raptors, also known as "birds of prey," such as hawks and owls. The birds are caught on the airfield in traps built by Boy Scouts and are then taken by the volunteers to habitats at least 200 miles away. The airport also uses "pyrotechnics" to "haze" birds from the runway, a method used by all airports under the FAA to "scare away unwanted birds," according to a statement from airport officials.

Ann Lynch, executive director of the South Bay Wildlife Rehab, said volunteers have retrieved 95 birds from Long Beach since June 2011. This year alone, 64 birds were caught so far at the airfield, according to airport officials.

State and federal regulations prohibit the shooting or harming of certain native, protected species, including Cooper's hawks, red-tail hawks and barn owls, which Lynch said are most common in Long Beach. But she said protections don't cover starlings and pigeons.

Although state- and federally protected birds are safely released elsewhere, relocating them out of their natural habitats isn't always ideal, Lynch added. "We're saving the birds, but it's got to be hard on a bird to be ripped out of its territory and possibly a mate and sent a long ways away," she said.

One way to deter birds from the airport is to rid the airfield of small animals that the birds prey on, such as rodents, including gophers and ground squirrels, she said.

Lynch also noted, however, that even eradicating prey animals doesn't entirely stop the problem. "You can do the best you can of getting rid of all of the birds and all of the prey items that hopefully will cut down on [the amount] of birds, but it's never going to be fool-proof," she said.

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