Wildlife and airplanes don't mix; that's nothing new. What is new is how Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Fort Myers, FL, is addressing the age-old conflict. Instead of relying solely on deterrence methods, RSW is also using risk assessment strategies and bolstering inter-departmental communication about wildlife management. Last year, its efforts were recognized with an ACI Environmental Mitigation Award.

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Project: Wildlife Management

Location: Southwest Florida Int'l Airport

Wildlife Hazard Assessment: Johnson Engineering

Data Collection & Analysis: AIRMAN Software, by Volairus Management Systems

Bird Spiders: Bird-B-Gone

Project Partners: Lee County Port Authority

Methods Used: Border collie patrol, pyrotechnics, vehicle sirens, bird harassment, alligator trapper & computerized database to track wildlife and analyze associated risk

Benefits: Inter-departmental Hazardous Wildlife Working Group has increased communication & coordination of efforts; 17% decrease in bird strikes since Border collie program was introduced in 1999

RSW's Hazardous Wildlife Working Group, formed in 2005, coordinates the wide variety of initiatives used throughout the airport grounds. While wildlife management is a daily practice, the group meets every other month to discuss issues that emerge within individual departments. Members from Environmental Compliance, Airport Operations and Airport Maintenance regularly report to the larger group, which also includes a hazardous wildlife biologist consultant.

"The Hazardous Wildlife Working Group was organized to bring all those people together - so we don't have one group going one way and one group going another way," explains Ellen Lindblad, director of Planning & Environmental Compliance. "We come together and share what each of us is doing."

Tree swallows detected at the end of the airport were a recent topic of discussion, reports Bill Brammell, the hazardous wildlife biologist from Johnson Engineering who consults with the group.

While the Environmental Compliance Department oversees the Hazardous Wildlife Working Group, Operations and Maintenance implement its various deterrence and management strategies. The methods used range the gamut, from a Border collie program and pyrotechnics to vehicle sirens and an alligator trapper. The airport is also experimenting with placing bird spiders from Bird-B-Gone on top of signs, light poles and even lawn mowers.

"They take up the space where a bird would typically land," explains Tom Nichols, RSW director of Operations. According to Nichols, the spikes have been "fairly effective" deterring birds in various locations.

RSW's most visible initiative is a series of daily sweeps by a Border collie supervised by an Operations agent - a method the airport links to a 17% reduction in bird strikes since the program began more than 12 years ago. "We're currently on our third dog," reports Nichols. "It's a very effective program; it works very well for the larger species of the birds."

The Maintenance Department handles other hands-on wildlife management work such as detecting and filling holes in fencing, cutting grass to the proper heights and keeping the pond area as clean as possible, relates Lindblad.

On yet another front, RSW uses a computerized database to track what and where wildlife is spotted. Data from biweekly wildlife monitoring sessions is collected and compiled by AIRMAN software, which helps determine trends for various species under varying circumstances. Variables such as time of day, weather, habitat attractants, species behavior and the success or failure of dispersal methods are used in the analysis, notes Greg Winfield of Volairus Management Systems, the company that created the software.

"They (RSM employees) have a lot of species to deal with - some more hazardous than others," relates Winfield. "AIRMAN allows them to easily concentrate on the problem species and deal with them in a proactive, informed manner as they see fit."

Surveying the Situation

In 2008, RSW performed a 12-month Wildlife Hazard Assessment with the assistance of Johnson Engineering. In addition to regular weekly daytime airfield surveillance, special early morning and dusk observations were performed.

The assessment, notes Lindblad, not only helps the airport identify and quantify birds, it also assigns relative risk factors to various populations, which further focuses deterrence and management efforts.

Johnson Engineering developed a geographic information system (GIS) approach to quantify and graphically display the areas of risk on the airport for any given time of day and year. To do so, it developed an algorithm based on the basic concept that hazard multiplied by probability equals risk. The hazard values used are based on relative hazard scores developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, notes Church Roberts, director of the Environmental department at Johnson Engineering.

The result was a color-coded grid that identifies risk areas throughout the airport grounds. "We have migratory trends down here; we have nesting trends and things like that," explains Roberts. "(The grid) helps assist the Operations folks on knowing what times of year these (factors) could be expected to happen. As opposed to them just going all over the airport property, it really targets their management plan to specific areas. It quantifies it."

Communicating with employees who will implement wildlife management programs, he stresses, is an important factor. "You have to have that direct link to the Operations folks, because what the consultant might suggest may not be realistic," says Roberts. "It's critical to have that coordination as you develop that plan."

Lindblad says the maps, which show the airport in all four seasons, have been very beneficial. "It's really helped us determine what areas of the airport need to be looked at and what kind of birds or wildlife are causing that risk and how we can lessen that risk," she says.

Challenges & Successes

Improved communication among departments participating in the Hazardous Wildlife Working Group has helped eliminate many challenges inherent to wildlife management, reports Lindblad, but others remain. Working with wetlands and wildlife organizations tops the list.

"We've established a good working relationship in the past few years with our permitting agencies and our local government as to the importance of deterring wildlife around airports for safety reasons," she notes.

Scheduling the two airport employees who work with the RSW's Border collie is another challenge, adds Nichols.

Renee Kwiat, RSW manager of Environmental Compliance, says a big success of the wildlife program has been convincing state and local governments to allow the airport to have 2-to-1 side slopes with riprap banks on its lake. Normally, 6-to-1 side slopes with littoral plantings are required, but they attract wading birds, she explains.

During the entire hazardous wildlife assessment, only two birds were spotted on the airport's 160-acre lake, Kwiat notes. "When you've got a large water body like that, you would expect to see more birds around it," she explains. "We were able to convince the South Florida Water Management District to allow us to size the system so we weren't impacting water quality downstream, yet we were creating a safer environment on the airfield."

Roberts explains why the system works: "The littoral shelves act like mini marsh wetland communities. If the side slope is too steep, you don't get that littoral shelf establishment, and once the water gets say two feet below what we call our control elevation, the water is then too deep, (so) the birds can't walk around and eat."