BAM! A loud shot fired from a white pickup truck at the Juneau airport rings out across the pond near the airport dike trail. Ducks and geese that had been quietly feeding lift from the water and fly toward to Mendenhall Wetlands. The migratory swans huddle in a tight circle, their necks stretched erect, unsure what to do. A series of sharp explosions convinces them to fly also. They circle low over the pond, gain altitude and fly toward the glacier, crossing the flight path for aircraft using the floatplane basin and the runway. In the background jets are warming up their engines at the terminal.
The white pickup drives away. Mission accomplished. The potential hazard of bird strikes is gone. But is it? In a few minutes the swans return, crossing the runway and floatpond two more times before settling in a tidal pond on the flats. The ducks and geese have been flying around in a similar pattern.
Setting off non-lethal explosive noise makers to scare birds away from airports is called hazing. It is common practice for reducing the possibility of a tragic collision of birds and planes that could potentially kill more than a hundred airline passengers if birds collide with jet engines. In the case of a 22-pound swan or a 15-pound Canada goose, the effect could be deadly. In 1995, 24 people died at Anchorage's Elmendorf Air Base when a military plane crashed on takeoff after hitting a flock of geese.
As the scene at our airport describes, hazing may be endangering air safety more than protecting it. It frightens birds into flying that otherwise would be feeding on the ground or water. It converts a possible threat to a more likely one.
There is no question that Juneau's airport is located in a place with bird strike potential. With the Mendenhall River on the west side, the tide flats and wetlands refuge on the south side, and a salmon stream and prime goose habitat on the east side, there is certainly sufficient attraction for waterfowl and other birds.
This complex relationship of birds and airplanes has endured for many years in a delicate and unique balance. Birds here are incredibly tolerant of noise, airplanes, and people and their dogs. Birds are habituated to the daily activity of the airport and of hikers on the popular airport dike trail. Because they have grown accustomed to living in close proximity with humans, the bald eagles and waterfowl that use the wetlands rarely take flight unless something unusual occurs, such as dogs chasing the ducks or geese.
When the airport last year started using automated, propane-powered sound cannons, however, the birds became exceptionally skittish and took flight at the least provocation due to the unceasing explosions. One spring day blasting occurred from dawn till dusk. In response the ducks that normally remained quietly probing the mud for food, leapt into the air when a person walked past them on the trail. Unfortunately, the airport's effort to remove the bird strike hazard appeared to increase it significantly.
This year the hazing has been more restrained and targeted due to different weather conditions and lower waterfowl numbers. Still, forcing the birds into the air seems to be the wrong approach to preventing collisions with airplanes. It is a foolish notion that once birds are flushed we can influence the direction they fly.
Finding answers to these potential conflicts may not easy, but I think we can find a better way to coexist with Juneau's wildlife. We have been fortunate to do so for many years with minimal interference.
In the next few months work will begin on the environmental impact statement (EIS) for possible extensions of the runway for safety areas. Citizens will have the opportunity to comment on hazing, forest elimination, and whether filling an additional 78 acres of wetlands for airport expansion are the safest and best decisions.
In the meantime while the spring migration brings a variety of spectacular waterfowl to Juneau, I urge everyone to observe how we can best preserve wildlife and protect human life. They do not need to be mutually exclusive.
Laurie Ferguson Craig is a 32-year resident of Juneau who has walked the airport dike trail with her dogs for 19 years.