USDA, Michigan Air Guard program cuts risk of bird collisions

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Andrew Layton
  • Michigan National Guard

The flightline at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center is a busy place.

As the year-round host for training events like Northern Strike – the Defense Department's largest joint reserve-component exercise – it's not uncommon to see more than 60 aircraft on Alpena's tarmac. During exercise Northern Strike 19, more than 450 flights launched from the airfield over two weeks.

Adding to this high-intensity operations tempo, military aircraft aren't the only wings soaring over the base.

Located in the picturesque Northern Michigan woodlands near Lake Huron and other natural waterways, the training center attracts a significant migratory bird population. This presents a challenge for Senior Master Sgt. Pat Czajka, who oversees airfield safety.

One of Czajka's greatest concerns is the risk birds and wildlife pose to aircraft on approach and takeoff.

"You can't even begin to quantify the worst-case scenario," Czajka said. "Imagine an A-10 (Thunderbolt II) hitting a goose and crashing, killing the pilot and causing millions of dollars in damage. That's the whole point of the program, to properly manage the risk of a bird hitting an aircraft."

Czajka is talking about the Defense Department's Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Program (BASH), which aims to provide the safest possible flying conditions by discouraging wildlife from the vicinity of airfields. The Air Force reports about 4,000 bird strikes each year, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. Czajka says understanding the behavior and movement of birds in the airfield environment is critical to reducing aircraft bird strikes.

"There's no one thing that manages the BASH program," Czajka said. "It's a multiple-pronged effort."

Since taking on the job of chief of safety for Alpena CRTC in 2011, Czajka says one question has loomed over the base's BASH program: how does one man do it all?

That's where Dane Williams, a wildlife specialist with the Gaylord office of the United States Department of Agriculture, comes in.

Since 2012, Alpena CRTC has received an annual grant from the National Guard Bureau, enabling the USDA to partner with the Michigan Air National Guard to manage wildlife at the airfield. The amount of the grant has steadily increased with the success of the program.

"If I were to die tomorrow, I'd die knowing that because of what we've been able to do with our USDA partners, a good BASH program has been implemented on this base," Czajka said.

Today, Williams is behind the wheel of a pickup, making the rounds to check on a series of live traps he monitors around the airfield. It's a trip he makes two to three times a week.

"I don't know anybody who's better to work with than Pat," Williams said with a grin. "We've gotten to be really tight, as often as I'm out here."

Williams climbs out of the truck and heads over to a grassy area not far from Alpena's runway. During Northern Strike, this part of the airfield is used as a drop zone for parachuting cargo.

"The airport is surrounded by water, so there are constantly going to be waterfowl coming in," he says, pointing toward the lily pads and cattails of Lake Winyah, a short distance from the end of the runway.

"The most I've been using out here is eight pole traps. We also have three Swedish goshawk traps out here right now."

Williams said the pole traps, designed to harness a bird safely when it perches on top, are ideal for the open spaces lining the airfield.

"That trap has been modified to be really gentle. It just catches the bird by the foot, and they fall to the ground."

He puts his hand between the pieces of metal and springs the trap, demonstrating its light tension.

"A small kid could put their hand in it," he said.

Using pole traps, Williams has captured about 25 kestrels this year. The Swedish goshawk traps have captured several snowy owls and other species, including red-tailed hawks. After Williams tags and bands the birds, they are relocated to wildlife areas near Gaylord.

"We're trying to do it the way that's safest, most humane for the bird or animal, and we're trying to do it effectively," he said.

So far, none of the birds he has tagged and released have returned to Alpena.

While the BASH program remains focused on reducing the risk of bird strikes, Williams' work also encompasses the management of conditions and factors that could lead to the arrival of new species.

"Lately, I've been watching what the beavers have been doing at this channel," he said, kneeling to check a trap set underwater. "The beavers aren't a risk for a strike, but if they build a dam here, it'll start backing up the water to create a habitat that will be more likely to attract ducks – which of course are a risk."

Williams also monitors other factors, like the length of the grass at the airfield, which could deter wildlife by eliminating food sources.

By all estimates, Williams' work at Alpena is making the airfield safer for humans and wildlife alike. According to Lisa Kruse, environmental program manager for Alpena CRTC, the airfield's BASH program is contributing to the implementation of an integrated Natural Resource Management Plan, which outlines the base's holistic approach to environmental stewardship.

"I think the fact that we can manage species and still complete the mission is really great," Kruse said. "I think most people have the impression it's either one or the other."

Kruse says DoD installations must comply with many environmental regulations, including the Sikes Act – which provides for cooperation by the Interior Department and DoD with state agencies in planning, development, and maintenance of fish and wildlife resources on U.S. military installations – and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impact of their actions.

"Most people would have no idea how much effort we put into appropriately managing our natural resources," she said. "It's a balance, and we work really hard at it."

According to Col. John Miner, Alpena CRTC commander, the base's partnership with USDA will continue for the foreseeable future, and will only grow as the USDA implements a similar BASH program at the nearby Grayling Aerial Gunnery Range.

"Given our location here in Alpena, this base is very interwoven with the local community and the natural habitat that surrounds us," Miner said. "Working with the USDA, they've been supportive when we don't have enough manpower to manage a program this large. They're helping us maintain our commitment to being the best stewards we can possibly be in terms of safety and respect to the environment – it's really become an enduring relationship here with the USDA."

For Czajka, the USDA partnership means peace of mind knowing the right team is in place to maximize the airfield's operational needs with safety.

"I don't care if it's a military aircraft or civilian," he said. "If we can save a life, it's totally symbiotic."