Keeping wildlife off tarmac is big job at Pittsburgh International Airport
January 17, 2016 12:00 AM
USDA biologist Robert Hromack fires a charge to chase birds off the runway.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a crisp January morning, Robert Hromack patrolled the perimeter of Pittsburgh International Airport, looking for potential wildlife security risks. At the edge of the woods, a white-tailed deer browsed as the truck rolled to a stop.
Hromack watched for a moment and eyed the deer with binoculars. A biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his job is to prevent the kind of catastrophic damage 150 pounds of body mass could do to a speeding jet airliner and its passengers.
He noted the deer’s location, put the truck in gear and drove on.
“Just shooting them when we see them wouldn’t be an effective way to maintain passenger safety in the Airport Operations Area,” said Hromack. “There are a whole range of deterrents and procedures we follow, and we resort to lethal means on the runway when it’s an urgent matter of safety.”
As many municipalities are learning, wildlife management is a vital element of land stewardship. The specific goals of a management program determine the tactics used. State wildlife agencies often stock an aquatic predator to reduce the negative impact of an invasive fish species. Adjusting hunting seasons and bag limits is an effective way to balance wildlife populations when human development impedes the natural balancing processes. Golf courses spend good money to keep animals off acres of landscaped, manicured, non-native grasses.
“Our main goal is to protect passenger safety by reducing animal strikes,” said airport wildlife administrator Ben Shertzer. “What we’re here to do is reduce the likelihood of an accident happening.”
A Federal Aviation Authority database records that 36 wildlife collisions occurred at the Pittsburgh airport in 2015. All involved birds with the exception of four unlucky groundhogs. Hromack said there hasn’t been a runway deer strike at Pittsburgh International since 2007.
The Airport Authority of Allegheny County, USDA and state Game Commission cooperate on wildlife management on the airfield’s nearly 9,000 acres. Hromack and Shertzer separately patrol the service roads and fencelines, but their focus is on protecting the runways.
Airport wildlife hazard mitigation is subject to FAA approval and includes habitat manipulation, fencing, sound repellents, relocation and the dispatching of wildlife presenting safety threats. The work starts in the wooded valleys far from the tarmac where field maintenance crews or outside contractors drain ponds and other standing water to deter waterfowl landings and reduce insect hatches, giving bats less reason to hang around the airport.
“Sometimes we work with private landowners [whose properties are under flight paths] to eliminate or reduce their standing water,” said Hromac.
Deer browse at the edges of natural gas pumping sites on county-owned airport land, but unpalatable grass mixes are planted on well pads to discourage routine feeding.
Within the Airport Operations Area, forest lands are clear-cut about 50 yards from the runways, and foul-tasting vegetation is cut 6 to 10 inches high.
“If a flock of starlings lands in the grass, they can’t see potential predators or what’s going on around them very well,” said Shertzer. “It deters them from landing.”
“It’s cut that way before it can go to seed so we’re not feeding them,” said Hromack.
A single line of chain-link fencing topped with strands of barbed wire surrounds the entire airport. A rock base is placed below the fence to deter crawl-unders, and more wildlife-deterring grass is planted in an expanse between the fence and the tarmac.
When Hromack passed a small flock of European starlings picking grit from a cement runway, he stopped the truck, loaded a starter gun with a pyrotechnic round and fired a shot into the air. If the initial crack didn’t frighten the birds, the secondary boom of a small firework scared them off.
“That’s a banger,” he said. “Screamers sound like a bottle rocket going off. Which one we use depends on the type of bird and where it is.”
Rarely does airport wildlife security involve trap-and-relocate. When short-eared owls, endangered in Pennsylvania, were discovered on airport land, the birds were trapped and relocated for their safety.
Shertzer said those measures are usually enough to keep wildlife off the runways, but occasionally an animal gets through the defenses.
“The safety and security of the planes and passengers is the No. 1 goal,” he said. “We go through a lot of procedures to repel animals, but if something poses an imminent threat we have to resort to lethal means.”
When animals pose a runway threat, they are dispatched with firearms.
As the airfield’s largest potential wildlife hazard, white-tailed deer are a serious concern. Hromack and Shertzer attempt to keep the airport population in check through Game Commission-approved sharpshooting culls that occur following the hunting seasons. Does are taken before bucks using sporting arms and procedures that are strictly regulated by the FAA. The venison is processed and donated to homeless shelters and food pantries.
Archery hunting access is given to vetted Airport Authority employees who have existing security clearances. The informal independent hunts are permitted on some 7,000 acres of airport property outside the Airport Operations Area. The archers are subject to state laws and Game Commission regulations.
“We don’t think of it as part of the cull,” said Shertzer. “The point is the people we have internally in the program … we know who they are, where they’re located and when they leave, and they are required to take antlerless deer before bucks.”
In 2013, state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, and Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Allegheny, championed a lottery archery program on non-runway airport property west of I-376. For post-9
11 security reasons, that expanse of airport property had been off limits to hunters since 2008.
Like the employee-only hunting on the other side of the highway, the lottery hunt is not intended to contribute much in controlling the deer population. That’s just as well. In its pilot year, about 3,000 archers applied for a permit, 157 were chosen and 11 deer were harvested — just four were population-controlling does. Since then program’s acreage, hunter participation and harvest have dropped. Fourteen deer were taken in the 2014-15 season. With 60 passes drawn in the 2015-16 hunt, five deer were killed — four does and a buck.
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