FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska – Alaska is well known for its mega fauna, animals like moose, bears, caribou, and walruses, but the numbers of those animals are dwarfed by the migratory bird population that relies on Alaska as a seasonal feeding and breeding ground. Approximately 5 billion birds migrate to the state each spring and stay through the summer, according to Audubon Alaska.
At 665,400 square miles in area, Alaska is large enough to accommodate the bird biomass from an ecological standpoint, but the annual influx of birds poses a significant risk to military and civilian aviation.
In 1995, 22 American and 2 Canadian service members were killed when a flock of geese on the runway at Elmendorf Air Force Base collided with a U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System airplane, causing the aircraft to crash in the nearby forest.
Nationwide, from 1990 through 2022, 44 civilians died as a result of wildlife strikes to aircraft. In 2022 alone, there were 17,190 wildlife strikes to civilian aircraft, as reported to the National Wildlife Strike Database. While the vast majority of these did not result in death or injury, the collisions caused 67,848 hours of aircraft downtime and approximately $385 million in damage, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Such incidents and data are the reason for the U.S. Army’s Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, or WASH program, more commonly referred to as the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program, or BASH, due to birds causing the vast majority of strikes. At Fort Wainwright, the program is carried out through a collaboration between numerous offices on post, such as the airfield staff, Department of Public Works, and contractors who handle snow removal, as well as staff members from the USDA’s Wildlife Services team.
Marc Pratt, the district supervisor for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services, described the partnership in the following way: “WS works directly with Ladd Army Airfield and the Department of Public Works Environmental Division to reduce wildlife strikes to aircraft operating at Ladd and lessen the impact that birds have on the overall mission of the Army. All parties work together in a collaborative effort towards reducing the impact that wildlife can have on mission readiness.”
The USDA team operates on Fort Wainwright from April 1 through Sept. 30, the period when migratory bird activity is greatest.
“Spring migration typically starts in April and runs through May as birds are returning to their nesting grounds in Alaska,” said Cole Suckow, a wildlife biologist with USDA APHIS. “In the summer months, BASH crews are busy dispersing nesting birds such as gulls and raptors.”
Suckow noted that gulls nesting on nearby rooftops, equipment, and vehicles and foraging on the airfield hamper the garrison mission and pose a risk to airfield operations. During the fall migration, “Large flocks of big birds greatly increase the risk of a damaging wildlife strike,” Suckow said.
The risk of such strikes is reduced through a combination of environmental management techniques that require year-round planning and daily actions to make the local environment less attractive to the thousands of birds that pass through the installation each year.
Two of the interventions to inhibit bird gatherings may seem less intuitive to the general public but are highly effective—snow removal and lawn mowing.
Pools of standing water—such as those formed by melting snow—are a bird attractant, so the contractors in charge of snow removal place the large snow piles in areas with proper drainage away from the airfield. When thousands of tons of snow melt in the spring, the formation of temporary ponds in high-risk areas is reduced, and birds will be less likely to gather there.
The lawn mowing schedule on post involves careful consideration of wildlife habitat preference, bird migration timing, and human aesthetic desires. The Department of Public Works’ Environmental, Master Planning, and Operations and Maintenance Divisions work together with the Ladd Airfield and USDA staff to develop maps for the mowing schedule.
“This mowing schedule should allow the grass in open areas to grow long enough to deter large migratory birds like geese and cranes, but short enough that it doesn’t offer cover for small mammals,” said Justin Smith, a natural resources specialist at Fort Wainwright. “Small mammals attract raptors like eagles and osprey, which pose significant BASH issues.” Smith noted that less mowing can result in future cost savings on grounds maintenance but that taller grass and vegetation is considered unkempt by some of the personnel who live and work on post.
Different from techniques that do not involve direct engagement with birds and other wildlife, another significant element of the BASH program is active harassment of target species.
“We employ an aggressive hazing program using a variety of active and passive approaches to mitigate bird presence on an airfield,” said Suckow. “The BASH team has an assortment of pyrotechnics that are launched from a 12-gauge shotgun or pyrotechnic launcher to produce audio-visual effects that scare the birds away from the area.”
No physical contact is made with the birds at any time, and the birds are not harmed by the loud noises or bright flashes, but they are deterred from gathering and staying. The BASH team’s frequent vehicle patrols of the airfield also deter the birds.
Fort Wainwright Soldiers, residents, employees, and visitors can also play a role in reducing the risk to aviation by reducing food attractants for ravens, a year-round presence on post.
“A typical issue we see is common ravens scavenging trash from the back of trucks or overfilled trash receptacles, which can be a major issue near airports,” Pratt said.
Suckow advises personnel to be proactive and said, “If you see a dumpster that has an open lid, close it. If you see a fast-food container in a parking lot, pick it up and dispose of it properly. One of the best ways to control wildlife on or near an airfield is to remove its food source.”
Smith emphasized that people should not feed any wildlife and that they should alert the USDA or Environmental Division if they are experiencing bird and wildlife issues.
While habitat management and wildlife hazing near the airfield may seem extreme, the actions serve to protect the lives of all who use the local airspace. Additionally, they funnel birds to areas like waterfowl refuges that are safer for the birds and accessible to the general public for viewing.