State Politics

Bill would give airports room to scare away birds

MIAMI — Florida airport employees could chase endangered birds from runways without fear they’d be prosecuted for harming the animals under a bill moving through the state legislature months after geese forced an emergency landing on New York’s Hudson River.

Airports around the state typically fire blanks from shotguns or non-lethal rounds from timer-controlled cannons to scare off birds and other animals. Sometimes lethal force is used on common birds such as doves, but an airport employee could face fines or even criminal charges if he were to accidentally hit an endangered or threatened species.

A Senate committee voted unanimously Wednesday for the bill offering airport employees protection from those penalties, entitled “The Airline Safety and Wildlife Protection Act of Florida.” The House version is moving through a committee, after which point it would face a vote on the House floor.

“It gives airports the authority they need to protect the consumers,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who introduced the bill last month.

But the problem isn’t unique to Florida. In California, Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, worked with airports to propose a similar bill clarifying that federal depredation laws trump state laws. The bill is being reviewed in a committee.

If signed into law, Florida and California would be the first states to offer airports such protections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A bird strike delaying his wife’s flight and the US Airways incident brought bird strikes to the attention of Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Florida, the House bill’s sponsor. Plakon said it exposes something airports preferred not to advertise. In 2008, more than 7,000 wildlife strikes were reported nationally.

Eustis introduced his bill weeks after a flock of geese disabled both engines of a US Airways jetliner, forcing the pilot to land in New York’s Hudson River in January.

Larry Dale, president and CEO of Orlando Sanford International Airport, said he has seen numerous species of birds on the airport’s four runways. He’s also seen gopher tortoises, dogs, cats, wild hogs and black bears.

“If (the law) gets passed we can be as aggressive as we need to be without fear,” Dale said.

In California, Sacramento International Airport’s location on a migratory path brings it numerous bird strikes. The bill in that state is needed so airport employees can continue use of lethal methods when needed, as granted by federal permits, but not state law, said Hardy Acree, director of airports for Sacramento County Airport System.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said current laws do a good job of protecting animals from airports, and the group wouldn’t want to see them diluted.

“It would open the door to much more commonplace cruelty,” said Tori Perry, PETA senior cruelty case worker. PETA has not seen cases of mistreatment of animals at airports.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is one agency that grants permits to airports for wildlife management. The agency has not investigated any airports for harming or killing animals protected by federal or state laws, said director of law enforcement Julie Jones.

Jones said the agency supports the bill, which promotes safety for travelers and animals. But she doubts the agency would prosecute an accidental killing.

At Miami International, the state’s second-busiest airport after Orlando, only non-lethal harassment methods are used. Paintball guns or lethal tactics that could lead to courts or fines are completely avoided, spokesman Greg Chin said.

But in 2003 before the non-lethal program, the airport used trappers and then sharpshooters to eliminate jackrabbits that were living around the runway. The jackrabbits were attracting vultures, which endangered planes.

Chin said the airport wouldn’t change its wildlife safety program because of the bill, but officials appreciate the flexibility.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport uses pellet guns to shoot the doves that flurry across runways every day. Spokesman Mike Nonnemacher said this bill protects workers and provides a “delicate balance” between safety for animals and people. “We have a civic responsibility to citizens to use whatever methods are available in a respectable manner,” he said.