October 27, 2007 in City

Airport shoots trespassing deer

By The Spokesman-Review

Federal biologists killed 18 deer at Deer Park Airport last month in an effort to keep the animals off the runways – an increasing public-safety issue at the alfalfa-laden airfield.

The Sept. 26 hunt took care of just half of the problem animals, airport Manager Penni Loomis said. Another operation will soon be needed.

“This is an ongoing effort,” Loomis said. “I can’t just do a one-shot deal and assume the problem is fixed.”

The first airport in Eastern Washington to undertake a hunt so large, Deer Park Airport has become a deer trap since the city put up a 7-mile-long security perimeter fence in 2003, said Madonna Luers, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The 8-foot-tall chain-link fence, while keeping out deer, also locks in those that have jumped over the barbed wire or slinked under through coyote holes, Loomis said. Deer on the runways, therefore, have trouble escaping from incoming airplanes.

“I would not be protecting the safety of aviation if I did not take care of this problem,” Loomis said about the hunt, which was first reported in this week’s Deer Park Tribune. “This is standard procedure.”

For years, the airport worked with the state Fish and Wildlife Department to come up with a solution. Loomis tried numerous nonlethal options, but none worked. And the airport’s invitation of about 50 hunters to “damage hunts” throughout the past three years yielded just 10 dead deer, she said.

Then in July a small airplane hit a deer while landing, damaging the plane but not injuring the pilot, and wildfire-battling water tankers had to abort landings because deer were on the runway, Loomis said.

The state agency eventually determined the only way to handle the problem quickly was to eliminate the animals, Luers said.

This is a unique situation, she said, and the Fish and Wildlife Department doesn’t even have a name for the deer-removal permit it granted the airport. For smaller operations, such as when wildlife destroys crops, the department issues permits for damage hunts and “hot spot” hunts.

“This is a higher level of situation,” Loomis said. “You don’t just allow regular people (to hunt); you need to have specially trained people who know airports.”

Loomis contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, which specializes in wildlife threats to humans, to set up the deer extermination. Wildlife Services helped reduce problem animals at 418 airports nationally in 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the USDA.

Spokane International Airport, occasionally explored by coyotes, has fences that go 4 feet underground and has short grass to discourage animals from hiding. Once or twice a month, the airport tries to “make it uncomfortable” for wildlife to roam the runways, airport spokesman Todd Woodard said.

“We use loud sirens and pyrotechnics to scare away animals,” he said. “We never use firearms.”

The Spokane airport doesn’t have a problem with deer – unlike its smaller cousin in Deer Park.

This past Sept. 26, at night, four Wildlife Services biologists, a game warden and several volunteers from the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council spread across the Deer Park airfield. Armed with rifles, they killed 18 deer. All of the meat was donated to food banks, Loomis said.

When she recently told the Deer Park City Council the airport would have to do another hunt, it was the first council members had heard about the one in September.

Mayor Robert Whisman kept the operation quiet, hoping to avoid animal-rights protests and opportunistic hunters, he said.

Councilwoman Dee Cragun believes the council legally should have looked at the city-owned airport’s agreement with Wildlife Services. But she is certain the council would have passed the agreement anyway. It “wouldn’t have been an issue,” she said.

“We certainly don’t have $750,000 to put into another fence,” Cragun said, “so the hunts are necessary.”

The rest of the council members, however, “didn’t really care” that the mayor kept them out of the loop, Whisman said.

“It was just a management decision,” he said.

Wildlife control – even a deer hunt – is standard procedure for an airport, Loomis said.

“It wasn’t a game,” she said. “It wasn’t fun for anybody at all.”

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