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Wily biologist holds critter line at base

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE — Soaring at 30,000 feet, Tyndall Air Force Base's F-22A "Raptors" are protected by avionics, communication programs and aerial surveillance systems spun like spider webs across the nation. But at 30 feet, they're counting on John Fontenot.

Fontenot is a wildlife biologist at Tyndall Air Force Base and the man in charge of implementing the Air Force's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Management Techniques, or BASH. His job is to keep Florida's ample wildlife at a safe distance from Tyndall's runways.

An 8-ounce ringneck dove can mean big problems for even the most seasoned pilots, especially around 200 mph during takeoffs or landings.

"In 2007, the Air Force had a bird strike damage cost of approximately $16-million," Fontenot said. "Luckily, most strikes go undamaged, but all it takes is one small bird like a starling or a kestrel or a killdeer."

There were 37 bird strikes in 2006 at Tyndall, followed by 33 in 2007. This year has seen about 13.

But birds are not the sole cause of concern for Tyndall's aircraft. With a healthy and often untraveled bit of forest and a generous serving of freshwater points, Fontenot has to contend with deer, rodents, snakes and the occasional Dumpster-raiding bear. He even has caught an alligator trucking toward the runway.

"I see everything. I've seen squirrels running across from one jet to the next just checking it out. So I was watching to make sure they didn't decide to call any of them home," he said.

Rather than go after the animals themselves, Fontenot wages a sort of guerrilla war against supply lines and food chains to keep critters away from the areas of concern.

Small ditches can fill up during storms and draw waterfowl and other birds, so Fontenot tries to keep them drained. Unsecured trash bins and left-out food will draw gulls and crows, so he locks them. High shrubs and heavy growth draw rodents that, in turn, attract coyotes and raptors (the one with beaks, not missiles), so he keeps them knocked back. If areas are found where large flocks of migratory birds roost, they are cut down. One of his biggest successes was installing netting over a retention pond he said would be packed talon-to-tail feather with birds during the drought seasons.

"You're not really affecting the bird species itself or the wildlife species. What you're doing is removing something that's critical to it in order for it to be less attracted to the area. That's our major goal: to make the airfield less attractive to wildlife," he said. "Habitat modification, habitat removal. I review new construction plans to identify, before it happens … attractants that may be within the plan that they don't see."

When it comes to deer and other large mammals, he said it has been a process of "reprogramming" them to be afraid of areas on the flight line, where they previously ranged freely. Only as a last resort are population culls used.

For the few endangered or threatened species in his area, such as the American kestrel, Fontenot said he works with the state to help trap and relocate them.

"Roosts, water sources, cover. This is the easiest way to manage for the species, because there's always another bird, always another hatchling to replace it. If the niche is open, something is going to take up the niche," he said.

Wily biologist holds critter line at base 07/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 3:10pm]
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