USDA, BASH saving lives and money
By Staff Sgt. William Banton, 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 20, 2017
SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Every morning, two individuals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture wake up before the sun rises and grab an air-rifle, a pair of binoculars and some pyrotechnics similar to bottle rockets, and head to an airfield at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.
Their goal isn’t to fight terrorists or to entertain troops, but to monitor and control the wildlife and habitats in and around military airfields as part of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Bird and wildlife, Aircraft Strike Hazard program.
“Ninety-five percent of the work we do is with birds, but we do get the occasional mammal on the airfield,” said Megan Baker, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service wildlife service’s wildlife biologist. “Everything is considered a hazard, everything from a large flock of birds to even just rodents, because those rodents will attract larger predators that could be potentially hazardous.”
According to the Air Force Safety Center, the goal of BASH is to preserve war fighting capabilities through the reduction of wildlife hazards to aircraft operations. For the 2016 fiscal year, AFSC documented more than 4,000 wildlife strikes to Air Force aircraft causing more than 20.6 million dollars in damage.
“So one of the misconceptions they have over here, and a question I’m always asked, is if we have wildlife in the desert,” Baker said. “The answer is yes, this is the corridor for birds that are migrating from Europe to Africa and back, so we will have about 5 million birds come through the Middle East.”
Fall and spring are typically the times of the highest number of wildlife strikes due to the migration patterns of birds.
“If the day progresses and we are noticing wildlife is actually migrating, because it’s the migration season right now – contrary to popular belief migration actually happens at night— we will get out here and monitor the populations after dark,” said Colby Cousineau, USDA APHIS wildlife service’s wildlife biologist .
The USDA uses a variety of techniques to protect both the aircraft and wildlife population. The goal is to create an environment unappealing to animals before having to forcefully remove them. This includes using pyrotechnics to scare animals away and changes to airfield structures to prevent permanent habitation.
“We sometimes get into the hangars where they may have concentrations of pigeons and house sparrows [to] put up some [bird] exclusions,” Cousineau said. “We do a lot of habitat modifications around here to try and reduce the attractiveness to the airfield from wildlife so we can naturally keep them off the airfield.”
To achieve these goals the USDA works closely with Air Force personnel and other federally funded organizations back in the United States.
“One of the really interesting things we get to do here is that we have a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution back in [the] District of Columbia,” Baker said. “When there is a bird strike we will collect the remains and send them to the Smithsonian. They use their DNA feather lab to identify what kind of bird it is and with this information, we can decide what kind of birds are in the area.”
Understanding the type of birds affecting the area helps the BASH team better determine how to deter wildlife from flying over the airfield. However, collecting this information has had a larger effect on the avian scientific community.
“When we look at the world wide bird research of the Middle East [it] is just a black hole, because what bird researcher in their right mind is going to come to the Middle East just to look [at] birds,” Baker said. “So having us out here we are out here looking, we are observing and we are seeing species of birds we didn’t even know were over here before. We are changing ranges and breading grounds of birds in books.”
The AFSC currently cites the Rock Dove, Black Kite, Pin-Tailed Sandgrouse, Larks, House Sparrow, Buzzard, Hume’s Short-Toed Lark, Magpie, Redshank and Sandgrouse as the most common birds affecting missions in the area of responsibility.
In the end, Cousineau said USDA personal working in the AOR face the same challenges as the military personnel they work with who are away from their family and friends.
“It takes a toll on everything we deal with but we are very mission driven here, we feel that we are doing our part and giving back,” he said. “Because we are mission driven, we try to help make sure that all the pilots and everybody on those planes get home safely so they can get back home to their families.”