Guarding the no-fly zone

For six months a year, wildlife biologist uses an ATV, guns, paintballs, pyrotechnics and wits to keep birds away from Juneau's only landfill

Posted: Friday, February 27, 2009

Garrett Savory has a mischievous child's dream job.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The 26-year-old U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife specialist spends six months out of the year at Juneau's only landfill in the Lemon Creek area, riding an all-terrain vehicle around the manmade hill to hound would-be scavengers, firing whistling and banging pyrotechnics and generally doing whatever he can to harass thousands of gulls, ravens and eagles looking for an easy meal.

"I never thought I'd be working with wildlife on a landfill when I was in college, I can tell you that," Savory said.

Based on the job description, it's easy to envision Savory as a yahoo or a cowboy, but he's not. He has a bachelor's of science in wildlife from the University of Utah and has a professional air about him, despite the unpleasant landfill air also about him.

When he spots a bird or even a shadow somewhere it shouldn't be, he snaps into a methodical, practiced routine. He scans his surroundings, opens a bin on the back of the ATV, puts on safety glasses and ear protection, warns anyone nearby, and fires off a pyrotechnic or a few paintballs.

But calling him a professional bird chaser sells him short.

"Oh no, I'm a wildlife specialist. A wildlife biologist," he said of the suggestion.

Landfill operator Waste Management contracts with Savory's agency to manage the birds on the site, one of many obligations of running a landfill. Most of the time, "managing" the birds means non-lethal harassment, but as a last resort can, and has occasionally included, lethal action.

The bird nuisance, which can cause aviation safety risks with Juneau International Airport so near, began when the landfill's incinerators shut down in 2004 and garbage began accumulating instead of ashes. At that time, Savory said there would be thousands of birds towering above, though there have been no known collisions between birds and planes above the landfill. The landfill also has a legal obligation to deter wildlife nuisances.

In 2005, the USDA came in, studied the problem and offered management solutions, such as reducing the area of the landfill where trash is actively dumped, covering it at night and a harassment regimen - Savory's job.

Every instance of bird harassment, the method used, and number and species of birds targeted, gets documented in a metal binder he carries with him on the back of the ATV, destined to be aggregated in an annual report.

In the fall when the birds are particularly active, "It seems like I do more writing than wildlife control," Savory said.

In 2006, he recorded hazing 95,000 gulls. In 2008, it was down to 18,000. It seems they're learning.

But he has to use a lot of different methods to keep them from getting too comfortable.

"If you use one tool, the birds get habituated. There is no silver bullet in wildlife management," he said.

Savory stows the ATV and the rest of his gear in a shipping container on site and has a lot at his disposal. On Tuesday, he packed a blank revolver, a shotgun, a rifle, whistling and banging ammunition, a stuffed coyote impaled on a rebar rod, a paintball gun and a laser pointer.

"The most important tool is me and my mind," Savory said with a cheesy grin after explaining how each tool is used.

Waste Management District Manager Eric Vance said the birds used to loiter on the outskirts of the landfill or on the landfill office building and swoop in whenever Savory took a bathroom break.

"Birds are a lot smarter than we give them credit for," Savory said, noting research that demonstrated birds recognize different faces.

He tries to avoid anthropomorphizing the birds, but in his experience, the ravens seem to be especially clever.

"One caws, makes a ruckus. Then I go pay attention to him and all his buddies come in behind me," Savory said of one apparent raven tactic.

Savory's landfill duties run from September to March. The rest of the year, the birds aren't as desperate for scraps or have migrated elsewhere and don't need as much human attention to keep away. Trained landfill employees can also do some of the bird management work when Savory isn't around.

Savory spends the other half of the year in other parts of the state working on different wildlife projects, such as testing for bird flu or tracking wolf populations.

"It's a fun job. I don't have to be inside all day, it's not for me," he said.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail

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