HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah --
Wildlife managers at Hill Air Force Base are working overtime to preserve the lives of predatory raptors while also minimizing bird strikes that can occur to aircraft flying in and out of the base’s airfield.
The Raptor Relocation Program, part of the base’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) program, focuses on trapping kestrels, hawks, owls, and other raptors and relocating the birds to safer, more suitable habitats away from the airfield.
Ryan Carter, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife technician, has worked with the program for nearly a decade, and has seen firsthand the severity of bird strikes.
“As a former Air Force aircraft mechanic, I understand the damage birds can do to aircraft. This is a really important program in keeping the aircraft and those in them safe,” Carter said.
Since 1995, aircraft flown by the Air Force have sustained more than 100,000 bird strikes. Within the same timeframe, the Air Force lost 13 aircraft and recorded 29 deaths due to bird strikes. The total cost of these strikes, excluding the cost of injuries, is $714,437,286.
For Tyler Adams, a USDA wildlife biologist at Hill AFB, the relocation program is not only about protecting Airmen and aircraft and saving dollars, it’s also about protecting the birds, which are important to the ecosystem. He finds great satisfaction in removing birds from a dangerous habitat and introducing them to areas without the risks to their lives or to the base’s flying mission.
“There is a near zero percent chance a bird is going to survive a strike with an aircraft,” Adams said. “No one wins when a bird collides with an aircraft. Removing them is a win for everyone. It protects Air Force assets and keeps missions running, while also protecting the birds.”
Adams said the birds are safely captured through certified traps cleverly designed to enclose birds or prevent them from flying away. Traps are checked every few hours and when a bird is captured, it is photographed or banded and taken to a more suitable environment; usually more than 50 miles away. Efforts are made to try to ensure mountains are between the drop site and the base to prevent birds from returning, and these efforts have been successful, as no relocated bird has been documented to have returned to Hill’s airfield.
“We persuade wildlife to choose safer habitats and our raptor relocation program helps fulfill our mission with a high success rate of birds not returning,” he said.
Since April 2015, the team at Hill has captured and released 269 birds of prey: 229 kestrels, 15 Cooper hawks, 13 red-tailed hawks, five Swainson hawks, and seven great horned owls.
The Air Force BASH program aims to preserve warfighting capabilities through the reduction of hazards to aircraft operations. Other means of controlling the bird population include controlling insects using mechanical or chemical means, making insects undesirable as a food source through chemical fogging, using pyrotechnics to scare birds away and, as a last resort, employing lethal removal efforts.