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Biologists kill gulls to protect airplanes

Scientists want permit to kill 100 more birds at Lemon Creek dump

Posted: Thursday, February 23, 2006

Federal biologists have killed 50 garbage-dump sea gulls this winter to curb a threat to airplanes flying near Juneau International Airport, and now they want to take 100 more.

Pest managers are seeking to amend Waste Management's permit to boost the number of gulls shot legally over the city dump at Lemon Creek to 150.

Wildlife biologist Bill Wilmoth, who works for the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said killing gulls is the only way to reduce them effectively.

"We have reduced the gull population from several hundred in the beginning of January to what it is today, which is about 10 to 75 birds," Wilmoth said. "This really is the best solution now as long as there is a need for an open-faced landfill in the flight area. Without the lethal and nonlethal combination pressure, the birds will return and there will be a dramatic increase."

State wildlife officials have gone along so far, but say another solution is needed eventually.

The dump is about two miles from the airport.

Wilmoth said pilots reported an unusually high number of the birds in their flight paths last fall. There was an average of about 500 to 1,000 gulls looking for food every day. One day in late November there were 1,500.

"There was a perceived flight-path danger in the Lemon Creek area," Wilmoth said. "Airport personnel were also seeing a lot of gulls on the runway."

In late October Wilmoth's team started nonlethal means to scare off the birds, such as shooting fireworks and paintball guns, and driving vehicles with flashing lights and horns to chase them away.

"We try to do everything nonlethal, and lethal is the last resort," Wilmoth said. "Lethal with nonlethal is really the only effective way. We shoot one or two gulls in large flocks, then they circle and see the dead bird. We then use nonlethal guns so gulls will think they are the same."

Permits are issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Fish and Game wildlife biologist Karen Blejwas said. She handles permit requests to haze, harass or kill wildlife.

The state on Jan. 19 issued Waste Management a one-year permit to kill 50 gulls, those already killed. Waste Management has since asked for an amendment to take 100 more, Blejwas said.

"This is a safety issue now and we will take that into consideration, but killing more gulls is by no means the long-term solution," she said. "We will potentially (require) conditions that they figure other ways to solve this problem in the future."

But Blejwas said gulls are difficult to control.

"Other birds are more easily deterred and nonlethal weapons will get them to leave the area," she said. "It is our understanding everything has been done to get rid of the gulls nonlethally before this request."

Eric Vance, who is general manager of the Lemon Creek Landfill, said the bird situation has improved dramatically.

"I am willing to bet there would be an average of 600 to 800 birds if this wasn't in place," he said. Vance said airport and Federal Aviation Administration managers never issued citations, but did make it clear they wanted the number of gulls over Lemon Creek cut.

"We didn't come out and shoot every bird on the ground," Vance said. "What did happen was a success because I do not see one bird here today."

Vance said the staff also minimized the garbage area, making the dinner plate for birds as small as possible.

Airport Business Manager/ Security Coordinator Patty DeLaBruere said pilots noticed more birds a few months ago, alerting airport managers to a potential problem. She said the airport has initiated studies to determine more about gull activity.

"Birds and airplanes just do not mix," DeLaBruere said. "There has been a noticeable decrease in gull traffic, but we cannot say it is because of the program at the dump."



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