Flocks of people come to Aspen to see birds and wildlife, but no passenger wants to see them in the path of an airplane.
The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is currently finishing up a year-long wildlife study on potential conflicts between flights and furry or feathered things.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been awarding grants for wildlife assessments at airports around the country since soon after 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson” incident.
In that case, a plane leaving New York’s LaGuardia Airport struck a flock of geese and lost thrust in both of its engines. The plane safely landed in the Hudson River, averting tragedy and bringing a brief national spotlight on wildlife-airplane conflicts.
The Aspen/Pitkin County airport won a $113,410 grant to assess its wildlife issues. In a heavily forested area like Aspen, birds and animals are very much a part of airport and flight planning.
The airport completed a full year of monthly assessments by the wildlife biologists at Mead & Hunt. The firm and airport officials are in the final drafting stage of the assessment, and expect to release its results in coming weeks.
“The next step is a wildlife mitigation plan,” airport director Jim Elwood said Friday. “They’ll decide what, if any, changes make sense for us.”
That could mean simple steps like mowing grass around the airport more, or removing habitats that could attract problematic wildlife. Keeping nearby rodent and snake populations down, for example, could be a goal, because they attract more birds and potentially larger species to the area.
The FAA has closely tracked trends and bird strikes since 1990. In fact, the feds keep a database that has recorded every reported strike since then — more than 121,000 collisions in all. The vast majority of them don’t cause any major disruption in flights. Over the last five years, the agency reported, there are 26 bird-plane collisions in the U.S. everyday.
Flights in and out of Aspen have reported just one strike this year — a July 19 collision between a plane and a killdeer. The airport has reported a few in most years on record, including collisions with sparrows, larks and great horned owls. Non-bird wildlife collisions have been rare for the airport, but have included fox and, in 1995, a pet dog on the runway. Fencing around the airport largely keeps animals off of the grounds.
“Occasionally there is a small bird strike,” Elwood said. “Most of those have been sparrows and small birds. ... But hitting a turkey vulture or something would be a serious issue for the airport.”