Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

April 9, 2013
Tales from the Sky

Grantsville man’s job as wildlife biologist keeps planes, birds safe in skies above airport 

Keeping birds off 7,900 acres and out of the path of airplanes is a 24/7 job — and Salt Lake International Airport wildlife biologist Mike Smith would know.

The 52-year-old Grantsville resident loves birds, especially raptors or birds of prey like hawks, eagles, falcons and owls. In fact, he was a falconer for 15 years, but he makes sure the airport’s feathered visitors don’t get too comfortable and stay long term. His job is to keep the flying wildlife safe.

Smith, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee contracted by the Salt Lake International Airport, along with a team of four airport employees, humanely trap and relocate raptors at the airport 365 days a year.

The Salt Lake International Airport is a Delta Airlines hub and the 25th busiest airport in the country. Its location — the corridor between the Wasatch Mountains, the Great Salt Lake and the West Desert — funnels thousands of migrating birds.

The birds are usually attracted by three things: food, water and cover — and they don’t often steer clear of their bigger metal counterparts.

“Bird strikes have been around since planes were invented,” Smith said.

Even Orville and Wilbur Wright struck a gull at Kitty Hawk in those early days of flying.

“In a bird strike, the bird always loses [to the plane],” he said. “We can’t tolerate wildlife in the airfield.”

Since May 2008, when Smith started his job at the airport, he and his crew have trapped and relocated more than 1,200 raptors.

All day long they use pyrotechnics, like a firework called “Whistler” that makes a loud noise, to scare birds away.

Other times, he has to determine what attracts a flock of birds. He then works with airport engineers and surveyors to eliminate the attractant, looking at problem areas that have rain or snow, which form ponds and standing water.

Driving around one day, he found a burrowing owl trying to make a nest of leftover concrete half-buried in the ground. He then went on to request airport employees to dig up the pipe.

Not all airport visitors are the flying kind. Sometimes, domestic dogs get into the airfield.

“A dog running on the airfield is a big deal,” Smith said. “It’s bad for the dog. [Having] an animal out on the airfield creates hazards when pilots try to avoid it.”

On separate occasions, a red fox and a dog got in through an open gate, blocking a plane’s path on the runway. To everyone’s relief, there was no damage.

“We opened the gate and chased the animals out of the area,” he said.

Still, having to deal with wildlife on the airstrip has a ripple effect.

“You have to make your flight at 6:07,” he said. “The wheels have to be up by a certain time. The plane has to take off because another plane is landing. When it’s real busy, 11 planes could be lined up for takeoff. If you have to catch a dog first, the plane that didn’t get to land gets behind by several minutes. Customer confidence erodes. Several planes burning more fuel because they didn’t get to land would cost airlines thousands of dollars.”

If a plane were to hit a dog, fox, coyote or big flock of birds, it could sustain millions of dollars in damages, have to make an emergency landing, or worse, crash.

The airport considers its wildlife mitigation program so important, it spends half a million dollars every year between equipment and personnel. One of the most successful landscape changes has been to replace grass with roto mill tailings.

“Grass attracts insects, rodents and then raptors,” Smith said.

In 2010, when the airport had a deluge of earthworms after a long, rainy season, which in turn attracted gulls, Smith worked with an entomologist to kill the worms.

Outside the airport perimeter, duck clubs or ponds stocked with fish attract pelicans. Typically, pelicans soar for an hour and pose a great hazard to airplanes. To get rid of the fish, their food source, Smith put a chemical called rotenone in the ponds.

Harsh weather can also drive birds to the airport, since it becomes one of the better sources of open water in the area. This year, after a hard winter, the areas surrounding the airport had an influx of bald eagles. Smith’s team harassed them with pyrotechnics and they stayed away.

Smith started working at the airport five years ago, the first biologist the airport has contracted to do this job. Prior to working there, he got his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from Utah State University and spent 18 years managing human and wildlife interaction in Vernal and Reno. He has worked with elk in hay fields, bears in campsite Dumpsters and raccoons in chimneys.

He spends a majority of his time at the Salt Lake Airport, but also works at the South Valley Airport and Tooele County Airport once every three months.

At his present job, his working day starts as early as 5 a.m., when he checks traps scattered in several locations in the air operations area.

The traps are typically about the size of four large rabbit hutches, with triangular, spring-loaded mechanisms on top that trap, but don’t harm, birds that perch on it. Underneath the trap is a separate compartment holding live bait like pigeons, sparrows or mice that attract the raptors with their movement. The raptor and bait never mingle, and the bait are fed and watered every day.

Afterward, Smith bands the raptors, preparing them for relocation.

“I enter banding data in the computer to get it ready for the bird banding lab,” he said. “If the staff sees a broken trap, I repair a trap to make it work.”

After banding, he typically drives 150 to 200 miles away to relocate the birds in a habitat they would thrive in and hopefully choose to stay in. About 97 percent of relocated birds never come back. Even though the raptors are not endangered, his office has to get permits for everything they trap. They euthanize some smaller birds like starlings, which, though small in size, have a higher body mass and capacity for damage as flocks.

Smith gives credit to the airport staff of four — J.R. Matheson, Matt Brown and Shane Collier, supervised by wildlife manager Gib Rokich. During daylight hours, they support Smith’s efforts by harassing birds out of the airport as well as setting and checking traps.

It’s not all work. As a side benefit, they get to admire raptors up close. Smith carries a camera everywhere and has taken photos of several raptors in flight, and they never know what interesting bird they’re going to find in the traps each day.

“The beauty of the job is there’s not a typical day,” Smith said.

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