On a sunny day during a major December storm in Anchorage, two elk stroll leisurely through the deep snow on the frozen surface of Lake Hood. Once on shore, the animals scurried away from Cody Thompson, a wildlife expert with the USDA Wildlife Service.
Thompson fired his paintball rifle into the ground, making a gentle popping noise, trying to startle them off a nearby airstrip that was closed at the time rather than attack them.
“Sometimes it works better than others,” he said of the tactic.
The airport area is home to elk, Thompson said.
“I wouldn’t say the moose here are a nuisance. They’re just trying their best to survive the winter and sometimes stray into our territory,” Thompson said. All right, just get them out as safely as possible.”
The Wildlife Services team is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant and Animal and Health Inspection Service, said wildlife biologist Spencer Nelsen, who oversees it.
“Our job is just to keep planes from colliding with wildlife,” Nelsen said. “When that happens, it often damages the plane. And that’s never good for wildlife. They always lose.”
Trudy Wassel, deputy director of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, which includes Lake Hood, said the airport has a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide mitigation.
“These are very mission-critical for operations at this airport,” Wassell said.
Monitoring wildlife and keeping them out of harm’s way is a job that takes place 24 hours a day, seven days a week from spring through fall, Nelsen said. Five specialists work with him from April to October. During winter, two wildlife experts and his Nelsen team up to monitor airport facilities for about 10 hours a day.
“What interests us most in winter are moose, bald eagles and crows,” says Nelsen.
He said that shooting birds is a constant challenge and that it changes from year to year. Several years ago, Wildlife Services removed more than 30 of his short-eared owls from the area, Nelsen said. Some years the sandhill he focuses on cranes, some years on seagulls.
“There will be more than 25,000 birds hazing from the airport at the end of this calendar year,” Nelsen said.
Wildlife challenges are different at each airport in the country, he said. Anchorage has mammal-specific concerns. “No one else has to deal with elk and few have to deal with bears like we do,” he said.
Wassell said he was unaware of any negative encounters between airport operations and wildlife.
“The safety of our customers, passengers and airlines comes first, but we also take care of animals,” she said.
[Previously: Soldotna firefighters rescue moose from basement]
On this day, Thompson was working in a pickup truck and followed a moose after it crossed the road toward the runway. He ran around, startling the moose into crossing towards the eastern fence. Thompson then slid through the deep snow to open the gates on the east side of the runway, honking his paintball guns and occasionally whistling and tapping the doors of the truck to keep the bulls out there. I was sent to
The slow rodeo was a success. The twin bulls turned to Thompson as he closed the gate behind him, sealing off easy access to the runway.
Thompson worked his way slowly through knee-deep snow to bring the track back to life.
“The gate was the easiest and safest way for them to escape. Otherwise they would have been back on the road before the traffic jam,” he said.