Grouse an airport worry
Assessment identifies risk, proposes killing, moving imperiled birds.
Biologists measure the head of a female sage grouse at a lek north of the Jackson Hole Airport runway in 2007. Area biologists are trying to learn more about sage grouse to keep the bird off the Endangered Species List. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 24, 2012
Jackson Hole Airport officials are distancing themselves from a “wildlife hazard assessment” that tentatively recommends hazing, killing and altering habitat to keep sage grouse away from the runway.
The assessment cost $30,000 and is the precursor to a larger pending “wildlife hazard management plan” that will be hashed out starting in closed-door meeting set for Nov. 27.
The document assesses wildlife species in and around the airport in Grand Teton National Park. It suggests an array of techniques to reduce bird strikes.
Because more than half of the strikes reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in Jackson Hole historically have involved sage grouse, the assessment focuses on them, a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Jackson Hole Airport board members and employees were quick to criticize the assessment.
The file name of the copy the airport provided to the News&Guide was labeled “final,” but pages contained a watermark “draft.” The document, prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, was not dated and did not include a cover page.
“I will say that I’m not particularly pleased with the assessment,” Airport Director Ray Bishop said. “I think all the parties involved — we looked at it and we said, ‘It’s OK, it’s not a great report.’
“We’ve made a conscious decision that we’re going to go back to square one, and we’re not going to pay attention to the assessment,” Bishop said.
Airport Board Chairman Jack Larimer agreed that the assessment will have little bearing on the plan.
“We’re starting with a clean sheet of paper, and we’re going to use the best science that we can,” Larimer said. “We don’t have any preconceptions about where we’re going.”
Biologist Bryan Bedrosian took the criticism further.
“I was shocked that they didn’t use any available studies in regards to sage grouse at the airport,” Bedrosian said. “Some of what they put in the general biology sections, based on what we know, is inaccurate.”
Kelly-based Craighead Beringia South, Bedrosian’s employer, has conducted a number of studies of the airport’s sage grouse population. Some date back years and were conducted using airport funds.
“They tried to describe the habitat at the airport,” Bedrosian said. “We spent a whole summer surveying the entire airport.”
FAA officials would not give an interview and did not respond to email other than by providing a link to a 2009 memo that explained why wildlife hazard assessments are necessary.
“It is incumbent upon airports to be proactive and understand the risk of wildlife strikes before they experience a triggering event,” Michael Brown, the FAA’s safety and operations division manager, said in the memo.
Triggering events are multiple or damaging wildlife strikes. FAA data for Jackson Hole airport shows 59 bird strikes between 1994 and July 2012. There is no data between 1997 and 2002. Some 29 of the 59 incidents involved sage grouse, but Bedrosian challenged the authenticity of those figures.
“I know that the historical database was altered in the last few years and some of the species have changed,” he said. “There used to be a turkey in the database, but that was changed to a sage grouse.”
The memo does not explain the assessment’s role in formulating an airport’s management plan. Jackson Hole Airport’s assessment addresses the relationship straightforwardly: “A wildlife hazard management plan should be written using this using this [wildlife hazard assessment].”
Bishop said the documents are unrelated.
“The assessment is a start point that says, ‘Yes, you have wildlife, and you should have a plan,’” he said. “But, we’re going to start all over again.”
A wildlife hazard management plan is required by the FAA for airports where planes hit more than one bird or suck one into an engine.
In 2003, a grouse caused $225,000 damage to a Boeing 737 taking off from Jackson Hole. Within a month, another suspected grouse strike caused $125,000 in damage to another plane.
A bird strike can cripple an engine and even bring a plane down.
The wildlife hazard management plan, expected to cost $200,000, is a much more detailed and elaborate study, Bishop said. It has been contracted out to Mead & Hunt, a Santa Rosa, Calif., consulting group.
“We are probably the most experienced group at wildlife hazard studies,” said Jon Faucher, a Mead & Hunt engineer. “We’re not even under contract yet. ... Right now it’s just game planning”
The plan could take about a year to complete, Faucher said.
Jackson Hole Airport will use a “steering committee” and a “working group” to draft a plan, Bishop said.
The committee will make executive decisions and will consist of Park Service and airport board personnel, Bishop said. Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott, two airport board members, FAA District Supervisor Jon Bauer, Bedrosian and Wyoming Game and Fish representatives will be part of the working group, he said.
“Over time, we’ll have public meetings, and at the end of the day we’ll publish a wildlife plan for the airport,” Bishop said.
The first meetings will be closed to the public, Bishop said. Larimer said the federal agencies wanted the meetings closed.
In the meantime, area conservationists and biologists who have worked closely with the airport seem confused.
“From the draft I saw, the report seems incomplete and full of dubious conclusions,” Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s wildlands director Cory Hatch said. “Some of the suggestions outlined in the report seem inappropriate for inside a national park.”
The suggested mitigation techniques in the assessment focused on changes to the landscape, Bedrosian noted.
“They didn’t really make any specific recommendations other than changing some of the disturbed areas to just fescue,” Bedrosian said. “The important piece of the puzzle here is that the Jackson Hole Airport is in some of the best sage grouse habitat in the entire valley. And it’s right in the middle of it. Even if you alter the habitat around it, it will still be used. There will always be sage grouse there.”