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June 11, 2012 / V A Nichols

The truth about Wildlife Services

VIEWPOINTS: Geese roundups around airports are for profit, not safety

Published: Sunday, June 10, 2012, 5:38 AM
Special to The Birmingham News By Special to The Birmingham News

By Mary Lou Simms

Geese-East-Lake-Park-0610-12.jpg

Taxpayers are subsidizing a $126.5 million program that exterminates more than 5 million wild animals annually, including thousands of community geese. (Victoria Nichols)

Will the feds round up and gas several hundred Canada geese and Muskovy ducks this month at three Birmingham city parks — East Lake, Patton and Avondale — for the second year in a row?

The Birmingham Airport Authority is mum. So is the federal agency that carries out the roundups under the guise of air safety.

Wildlife Services — the agency responsible — is the USDA’s dirty little secret.

I ought to know. Last year, I reported on this agency’s widespread — and, profitable, I might add — geese roundups coast to coast every summer when geese are molting and can’t fly.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service published the results of that investigation, in which a copy of a report obtained through a Freedom of Information request indicate that taxpayers are subsidizing a $126.5 million program that exterminates more than 5 million wild animals annually, including thousands of community geese.

The agency declined a FOIA request to say how much it gets from gassing geese, saying it does not keep such records. However, my research suggests that the Birmingham roundups have a lot more to do with profit than passenger safety at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

More than half of the agency’s overall budget comes from “killing” contracts, such as the $100,000 highly controversial New York City roundups every summer or a $218,000 contract in Ocean County, N.J., where the lives of 300 geese and goslings are in jeopardy this month. Such contracts also ought to be a matter of public record.

The Birmingham Airport Authority has repeatedly ignored emails and calls addressing the roundups. However, at last count, there were almost 50 new geese, including a set of parents and six goslings at East Lake. New geese inevitably replace those killed, an incentive for unsuspecting communities to allow the feds to embark on killing sprees that sometimes last years.

I’d also like to know the rationale for killing birds several miles away from an airport. Portland International and Logan International in Boston, for example, say they kill only in extreme circumstances (a flock refusing to leave a runway). Any killing should be confined to an immediate airport property — and even then, used only as a last resort. No one disputes that birds pose a threat to air safety or that humans shouldn’t come first. But the current industry trend leans toward long-term strategies that decrease the risk of bird strikes while attempting to preserve and respect local avian populations. Two years ago, for example, Wildlife Services recommended shooting every red-tailed hawk within 10,000 feet of runways at Portland International Airport. Instead, says the Portland Audubon Society’s Bob Sallinger, the airport came up with a solution that solved the problem without harming the hawks.

The airport’s groundbreaking research, he points out, discovered that the resident red-tails not only knew to avoid aircraft, they kept other red-tails (unfamiliar with planes) away. Airport wildlife personnel decided to leave its local nesting hawk population in place, he says, and hire a raptor biologist to relocate transient hawks discovered hanging out near the airfield.

Today, the program serves as a model for airports across the U.S. whose grounds attract hawks.

That’s the kind of innovation we expect at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth, where an Auburn University report also identifies doves — not geese — as the “problem” bird. Aviation specialists say that repeated killing merely opens the habitat to other geese; that the best programs use habitat modification which reduce or remove the physical conditions that draw geese, gulls and other birds to airports. Remove the attractions — short grass or easy access to water — and the geese won’t come.

New advances in avian radar also provide traffic controllers with screen displays of waterfowl activity that allows pilots to avoid geese and other birds as they would another aircraft. Portland International and other airports also reach out to their communities (including schools) in helping to initiate measures that help make airports less attractive to wildlife.

On its website, the Birmingham Airport Authority describes itself as “committed to building lasting community relationships.” Let’s extend that vision to include community wildlife. We’re a tight-knit community, and our geese and ducks are part of that. Certainly, the risk of a bird strike can never be completely eliminated, but wildlife managers at airports favoring nonlethal measures agree that such risks can be “reduced to a manageable level without wiping out entire avian populations every summer.”

The Airport Authority might also want to rethink its connection to the feds — as well as the geese.

Wildlife Services may find itself under congressional scrutiny following a recent three-part investigation in which The Sacramento Bee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental reporter Tom Knudson found the agency’s practices “to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane and sometimes illegal.”

“Since 2000,” he wrote, “… they have destroyed millions of birds, from non-native starlings to migratory shorebirds, along with a colorful menagerie of more than 300 species, including black bears, beavers, porcupines, river otters, mountain lions and wolves.”

As a result, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and John Campbell, R-Calif., say they plan to ask the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate the agency’s widespread brutality and wasteful spending.

Meanwhile — on our end — there’s a petition online that asks the Airport Authority to spare our geese and ducks this month.

Please sign it. There are 250 signatures from Europe, Canada and the U.S. (and bless their hearts for caring). But we need signatures from Birmingham. Let’s insist that the Airport Authority start focusing on nonlethal innovations to keep the skies safe rather than continue avian roundups that, without public intervention, could go on for years.

The petition is here on http://www.Change.org.

About the writer: Mary Lou Simms of Helena is a freelance investigative reporter most recently working under a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C. She is currently researching bird-strike prevention programs at a dozen airports throughout the U.S. Email: mlsimms123@yahoo.com.

© 2012 al.com. All rights reserved.

http://blog.al.com/birmingham-news-commentary/2012/06/viewpoints_geese_roundups_arou.html

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