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March 23, 2014
When a flock of Canada geese collided with US Airways flight 1549, forcing Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to ditch the plane in the Hudson River in 2009, the threat that wildlife poses to aviators exploded onto the national stage.
Since then, ridding New Jersey’s airport runways of animals has become daily business for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Since 2008, the agency has killed nearly 6,000 animals, mainly birds, that have congregated in areas it deemed to be a threat to aircraft safety at Newark Liberty International and Teterboro airports.
The problem is, these efforts are having no significant impact. The birds, it seems, don’t know that they are supposed to be scared away.
An analysis of Port Authority and Federal Aviation Administration data by The Star-Ledger shows that though the agency has expanded its wildlife management program considerably since 2009, wildlife collisions with aircraft at New Jersey airports have not declined.
Though most wildlife strikes do not cause any issue, several planes arriving or departing from New Jersey airports typically do sustain damage each year.
An aircraft at one of the Port Authority’s New Jersey airports collides with an animal, typically a bird, about once every two days — a figure that has remained virtually unchanged every year since 2008, the year before the Flight 1549 crash.
During that time, however, the number of animals — from European starlings to foxes to the threatened American kestrel — killed by the Port Authority has skyrocketed. In Newark, for example, just 10 animals were killed by the agency in 2008, while 1,267 were killed two years later.
“It’s a response to an oversensitive issue with respect to the public,” said David Mizrahi, vice president for research and monitoring at the New Jersey Audubon Society. “People want to understand that they’re out there doing something. But there are several ways to get at the wildlife hazard problem. I think airfields are a little slow on the uptake in coming around to them.”
The Port Authority asserts that the vast majority of animals are relocated through nonlethal means and lethal measures are generally used only when all other means have been exhausted.
“The safety of more than 110 million passengers using Port Authority airports annually is the agency’s highest aviation priority,” Port Authority spokesman Ron Marsico said in a statement. “The Port Authority has wildlife biologists on staff, and last year approximately 95 percent of wildlife mitigation efforts at the agency’s airports involved nonlethal measures. Nonlethal means are employed where possible to keep wildlife from endangering the lives of passengers and crews, including use of pyrotechnics, other loud noises and habitat management like the reduction of tall grass and standing water to help keep birds and animals away.”
Issue of safety
It’s an issue that even some of the more ardent animal advocacy and conservation groups are loath to criticize because it deals directly with the public safety of millions.
“It’s the juxtaposition between human safety and wildlife safety, and it’s a very difficult and fine line we walk,” Mizrahi said.
But the data still show that current wildlife management strategies implemented in recent years around Port Authority-controlled airports have been largely unsuccessful.
“It’s like if you have a swollen knee and you drain the fluid instead of going after the cartilage,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We tend to just look at the symptom instead of trying to address the root cause.”
Tittel said more emphasis should be placed on making the areas immediately around the airport less attractive to wildlife while building up habitats outside an area deemed dangerous to aircraft.
“Just killing birds doesn’t mean you get rid of bird strikes,” he said.
European starlings, which are small but flock, are the most commonly targeted animals in and around New Jersey airports, data show. Hundreds of other larger birds, like geese and ducks, that pose a more immediate threat to planes are also killed annually by the agency, typically with a firearm.
Mizrahi noted that each of the top five birds most often killed at New Jersey airports are considered introduced species, or animals that are not native to the area but do not necessarily have a negative impact on the local ecosystem.
“If this wasn’t being handled in this way, people in New Jersey would be
out hunting them,” he said. “This is part of the reason why we’re not
engaging the issue so actively.”
Mammals, such as foxes, woodchucks, deer and muskrats, are also killed by the agency should they pose a threat to inbound or outbound aircraft, Port Authority data show.
An American kestrel, a threatened hawk in New Jersey, was killed by the agency in 2012, but Marsico said it was only after other methods of removing the bird proved unsuccessful.
“The American kestrel taken at Teterboro Airport was removed from the runway safety area, adjacent to active runways, where the hawk posed an immediate threat to aviation safety,” he said. “Nonlethal control efforts were not effective and so lethal control was used to remove the hazard to aviation. State and federal permit authorities were notified of this action.”
The permitting process for the extermination of animals is complex and convoluted in New Jersey. Various state and federal permits dictate how many employees or contractors can be involved in the culling, how many of a given species can be killed to even what gauge of shotgun can be used to carry out the act.
Airports are generally built near water or as far away from the general population as possible for safety, efficiency and quality-of-life reasons, which often situates them near large wildlife habitats such as marshes and waterways. Mizrahi said numerous species of birds find asphalt appealing as well as the typically well-manicured grass that grows alongside runways, making airports particularly attractive to certain kinds of wildlife.
John F. Kennedy International Airport, for example, is situated next to Jamaica Bay, a major breeding ground for several species of birds. As a result, the Port Authority’s wildlife control program at the airport is far more expansive than at Newark or Teterboro. More than 42,000 animals have been killed at JFK airport since 2008.
Seeking new solutions
There are signs, both locally and nationally that the aviation industry is beginning to coalesce around the issue and strive for new solutions for wildlife control.
Recently, the Port Authority has been working with groups like the New York City chapter of the Audubon Society to relocate some species of birds, such as certain hawks and owls. In December, the two groups worked together to band and relocate several snowy owls, which have appeared in the region in unusually high numbers this winter.
“They let us know when the trapping is happening,” said Susan Elbin, the director of conservation at the New York City Audubon Society. “They’ve been really good about that. It’s been a good experience.”
Still, Mizrahi isn’t confident civilian and military airfields will be quick to change their policies.
“A very well-known aviation ecologist published a study on this very issue at JFK in 1994. Twenty years later we’re still having this same conversation,” he said. “It’s really difficult to move them off the mark.”
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