Vancouver Int’l & Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field Share Tips for Managing Wildlife

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

Like oil and water, wildlife and aircraft just don’t mix. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that civilian aircraft suffered 13,000 wildlife strikes at 662 U.S. airports in 2016 alone. While many incidents are minor, some have devastating consequences. Between 1990 and 2016, wildlife strikes resulted in 262 human fatalities at U.S. airports, and 247 civil aircraft were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. 

In addition to the inherent safety risks wildlife strikes present, they can also be very costly. According to the USDA, wildlife strikes cause about $1 billion in aircraft damages every year. “It’s staggering,” says Laurence Schafer, an airport biologist for USDA Wildlife Services in Washington state. “Some of that damage is direct, where birds get sucked into engines and they implode. But even if a strike doesn’t cause damage, an airline may need to take that aircraft out of service for a couple hours to investigate, and then it has delays and downstream effects.” 

To minimize such risks, airport operators employ a variety of strategies. Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field (YKM) in Washington state and Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in British Columbia both have formidable wildlife challenges they choose to face head on.  


Project: Wildlife Management/Deterrence

Location: Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field (WA)

Challenges: Wildlife from nearby mountains, forests & 3 on-airport streams

Guiding Philosophy: “Back-to-Basics” 

Primary Strategies: Vegetation & water management; non-lethal deterrents such as sirens & horns; documenting wildlife sightings on computer spreadsheets to identify movement patterns

2018 Achievement: USDA Airport Wildlife Award

Project: Wildlife Management/Deterrence

Location: Vancouver (BC) Int’l Airport

New Tool: Avian radar, by Accipiter Radar Technologies

Implemented: May 2018

Other Control Methods: Habitat management; tracking wildlife movement/patterns; pyrotechnics, sirens, trained raptors & dogs

Grassroots Approach

This summer, YKM received a Washington State Airport Wildlife Award for the proactive measures it has taken.

“Yakima has progressed significantly faster than others,” comments Schafer. “They’ve been doing so well these last few years…It was time to recognize their efforts.”

Nestled in a valley between several mountain ranges, YKM has a diverse ecosystem to manage. Three streams run directly through the airport’s property, but the climate is dry enough for tumbleweeds to be a common part of the landscape. Coyotes come out of neighboring forests to catch small animals, especially pocket gophers that like to dig underneath the airfield’s security fences. 

“Wildlife is always present, whether it be birds or mammals on the ground,” says Airport Director Robert Peterson. “It’s a snowball scenario within that ecosystem. You may have a few beavers in the stream, and they attract geese or ducks to sit right adjacent to the airfield environment.” 

In short, the full circle of life can be seen at the airport. 

Given the multiple challenges, Peterson chose to focus on the basics shortly after he took over as airport director in 2012. “The key was to understand the airfield, the environment and what’s attracting wildlife to the airfield,” he explains. “I think that laid a foundation for us to address a lot of our wildlife issues.” 

Peterson consequently stresses the importance of monitoring and tracking hazards, versus just reporting incidents. “Opportunities have come up in the past few years on our wildlife priority list to ensure we’re addressing projects such as infrastructure, vegetation management as well as airport landscaping to minimize wildlife strikes,” he notes. 

His team uses standard Excel spreadsheets to document and categorize the movement of various wildlife. “It’s a good foundation to bring to the annual meeting with the USDA, so we can talk about what we’re seeing and also identify changes over time—what types of species come and go, as well as patterns in occurrences,” Peterson explains. 

The USDA appreciates YKM’s database and how Peterson uses the information to identify hotspots around the airfield. “It’s difficult to manage something you’re not monitoring,” Schafer advises. “He’s able to see what is coming up and if a problem is developing with a different kind of bird, or if a problem moves.” 

For the last four years, YKM has banded together with nearby airports in Moses Lake, Richland, Prosser and Walla Walla to collaborate about ways to deter wildlife. The strategy has proved effective, as many of the airports encounter the same species of birds and critters. Each year, employees from YKM and other airports receive wildlife training from the USDA. This coordinated effort not only saves the USDA time and money, but also helps the airports identify common issues and solutions.  

This year, the main priority at YKM has been vegetation management. The maintenance crew is making extra efforts to keep lawns mowed and remove vegetation such as berry-producing bushes that attract wildlife. Removing a variety of trees inside the air operations area to ensure wildlife are not perching there was a key focus, and Peterson had no qualms about getting rid of the trees. “Passenger safety is the top priority, and removing trees has actually allowed a nicer view of the airport terminal,” he explains. 

Schafer notes that airport executives often face conflicting mandates associated with multiple environmental, water quality and wildlife habitat requirements. Add in the need to maintain an aesthetically attractive campus, and the job gets even more complicated. 

“It’s really difficult, but the bottom line is that we have to protect public safety—and sometimes that comes at the cost of landscaping,” he says.

Removing pocket gophers and stream management are other ongoing efforts at YKM. “We increased patrols to ensure beaver dams are removed and water levels are kept low, so that water flows freely to the streams and migratory waterfowl don’t want to settle in for a rest on an airport pond,” Peterson explains. “The highlight of the whole program is that it’s back to basics.”  

Schafer says that YKM excels in three important areas: training its staff, providing the tools they need and trusting their judgment. Peterson notes that one key part of the effort has been explaining to ground personnel and airport tenants that open garbage containers are strong wildlife attractants. 

Turning to Tech

Like YKM, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) uses data to track how various wildlife move about the airfield—and help identify the risks they present. Lately, its efforts have taken a high-tech turn. Since May, the Sea Island airport has been using avian radar to track bird movement. 

After exploring numerous options at trade shows and conventions, the Vancouver Airport Authority partnered with Accipiter Radar Technologies for a one-year equipment lease. Airport personnel were familiar with the Ontario company because of its strong connection and work with the Bird Strike Association of Canada. 

“The main goal is to understand how different birds move at night, says David Bradbeer, wildlife program specialist with the Authority. “But first, we want to validate the data we’ve been seeing.” 

Initial trials with the radar equipment have been doing just that, he reports. “It was nice to see and confirm the songbird migration. Songbirds migrate generally at night, and we saw lots of small radar tracks to the west of the airfield.” 

With growing confidence in the radar’s ability to track birds and help its team understand movement patterns, the airport will begin using the data to help guide strategy decisions. Better field information will help YVR be more effective quantifying daily patterns, forecasting bird activity and deploying wildlife personnel to key areas at the appropriate times, explains Bradbeer.  

That said, he also stresses the importance of understanding the capacity and constraints of any system. “Every sensor that exists out there will have limitations, and that’s fine. We know radar doesn’t see everything, but as we work through these very early days, I’m sure we are going to gather a ton of experience using this tool.” 

He encourages other airports to have a true understanding of the data they collect before acting on it.

Habitat management—making the airfield less attractive for birds and other animals—is another main pillar of YVR’s wildlife program. “We also work on drainage, to remove ponded water,” says Bradbeer. “Despite our best efforts, birds will come to find food; and then we have to try and change their behavior. 

“It’s our responsibility to ensure safe aircraft operations while conserving wildlife,” he summarizes.

Sound Practices 

While YVR’s new avian radar is helping it track birds more effectively, the airport also deploys a variety of pyrotechnics, sirens, trained raptors and dogs to move birds off the airfield. 

“We always say it’s the coolest job at the airport,” Bradbeer says with a laugh. “Someone has to do it.” 

In a similar vein, personnel at YKM use sirens, horns, “bird bangers” that make firecracker noises, and “screamers” that whistle like bottle rockets. “We do everything we can non-lethally to scare them away,” says Peterson.

According to the USDA, fully 92% of bird strikes occur at low altitudes—below 3,500 feet. In essence, both airports are “playing the odds” by working to keep birds and other animals off their airfields. Minimizing the food and habitats they prefer helps encourage wildlife to take up residence a safe distance from active air traffic.  


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