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Plane, wildlife collisions on rise

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:26 p.m.

WILKES-BARRE — Collisions between wildlife and aircraft increased five-fold from 1990 to 2011 nationwide, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which was criticized in a recent federal report for alleged gaps in its monitoring of wildlife hazards in and around the nation's airports.

Experts cite several factors for the increase, including an explosion in the population of some bird species, steady growth in air traffic and improved record-keeping after an Airbus 320 was forced into an emergency landing in the Hudson River when geese were sucked into its engines in January 2009.

The passengers in that flight escaped serious injury, but 24 people have been killed and 235 injured in the United States in collisions between aircraft and animals since 1988. In 1990, there were 1,770 wildlife collisions involving commercial, private and military aircraft utilizing civilian U.S. airports. In 2011, the number was 9,840. Ninety-seven percent of the 120,000 incidents since 1990 involved birds.

Nearly three-quarters of wildlife-aircraft collisions happen at altitudes of 500 feet or below, according to the FAA, and therefore most occur on or near airport grounds.

The FAA requires Class I airports that serve passenger aircraft with more than 30 seats to conduct wildlife assessments and implement mitigation plans, if necessary, after experiencing a “triggering event” involving multiple birds striking an aircraft, engine ingestion of birds, or substantial damage to an aircraft.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's mitigation plan includes an eight-foot, barbed-wire-topped fence around its 900 acres with four feet of wooden snow fencing buried underneath to frustrate burrowing animals.

“That doesn't mean they don't get in,” said Airport Director Barry Centini. “We have a license to shoot and kill them. We've shot deer. We've shot a bear. We've had a bear trapped and taken out of the airport.”

Bird-control strategies include traps, ultrasonic emitters and balloons aimed at frightening the birds off.

“We have pistols with cracker shots that disperse the birds,” Centini said.

“We keep our grass a certain height. We try not to keep standing water on the airport. Our retention ponds have to empty within 24 hours.”

While airports have been directed by the FAA to limit the availability of water on their properties, outside the airport fence strengthened protections for wetlands and a trend toward including expansive green space in urban and suburban development have created environments in which birds can thrive, leading to population booms for some species.

For example, the number of non-migratory Canada geese in the United States and Canada ballooned from 500,000 to 3.5 million from 1989 to 2000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Picture a housing development,” said Cody L. Baciuska, a biologist with Loomacres Wildlife Management, a Warnerville, N.Y., consulting firm that develops wildlife management plans for airports. “Most have some type of pond for decoration or runoff purposes. Generally you're not going to have hunters going in and putting pressure on geese there. And you have an abundant food source, the well-maintained grass. They love to feed on that.”

Canada geese, which can weigh up to 20 pounds and have wingspans of 4 to 5 feet, are a particular hazard because of their size. Smaller birds such as doves, gulls, pigeons, raptors and starlings, are struck more often, but are less likely to cause serious damage, according to FAA data. “European starlings are another issue,” Baciuska said. “Individually, they're not a significant threat, but their habit of forming large flocks is what makes them a significant hazard. Several hundred ingested into an engine can cause significant damage.”

The Inspector General's Office for the Department of Transportation in August faulted the FAA for what it termed “limited and infrequent” coordination with other federal agencies that regulate wetland projects outside airport boundaries that could contribute to wildlife hazards.

The report also recommended that the FAA make it mandatory for airports to report wildlife collisions to the agency, finding the voluntary nature of the current system limits its effectiveness.

The FAA countered that it plans to require airports to keep in-house records of wildlife collisions beginning in November, but it does not believe mandatory reports to the agency are necessary, as”

Asked to comment for this story, the FAA issued a statement maintaining that while reports of wildlife collisions have increased, the number of collisions causing aircraft damage have decreased. FAA data show that collisions causing damage peaked in 2000 at 758. There were 542 such collisions in 2011. In the intervening years, annual collisions causing damage ranged between 526 and 673.

“Over the last few years, damaging wildlife strikes have decreased on and near the airport environment while the level of reporting has increased thanks to the FAA's new approach to mitigate wildlife hazards through research, technology, training, and online reporting,” the statement said.

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