Local Airport With License to Kill Scares Instead

When a US Airways plane crash-landed in New York's Hudson River in January, it highlighted the danger of bird strikes. To prevent this, airports across the country are issued permits to kill migratory birds. Some local environmentalists are concerned about the one issued to Houston Executive Airport in Katy. But you may be surprised by how many birds have actually been killed there. From the KUHF News Lab, Wendy Siegle has the story.

Flying thousands of feet high in an airplane can be scary enough. Add the risk of hitting a flock of geese and you may decide not to fly at all. So it's no surprise that pilots and passengers often worry about bird strikes. Environmentalists say this is a particular problem for Houston Executive Airport, because of where it sits in Katy.

"The Katy Prairie is so rich with birds that it's just asking for trouble and public safety issues by trying to put airports out there."

That's Jody Hester, the former President of the Houston Audubon Society. Hester and other environmentalists are concerned by the reissuing of what's called a depredation permit. This allows the airport to kill up to 26-hundred migratory birds. But one person involved with the airport believes the concern is a bit excessive. 

"It's a gross mischaracterization of the approach the airport takes. This is, if not the, it's one of the top environmentally conscious airports in the."

That's Dr. Nicholas Carter, the Director and Principal Ecologist for Bird Strike Control Program, which oversees the airports wildlife control program. Carter knows exactly how many birds have been killed under the permit. Zero.

"The normal solution is to go out there and shoot them.  This is an airport that doesn't shoot them...that does the opposite of that"

Carter says the airport actually uses bird friendly, non-lethal tactics to prevent strikes. Ryan Meinerz, an ecologist with the Bird Strike Control Program, patrols the airport daily in his 4-wheel drive.

"We focus mainly on habitat alteration over the long term and everyday by doing patrols and through reinforcement of the border collie we've stopped the majority of ground nesters in the area."

His dog Portia has been trained to frighten and discourage birds from being too close to the airport.

"So I'll just take the whistle and give you a basic command to attack." (sound of whistle)

Meinerz also employs pyrotechnics, shooting off bangers and poppers to steer them from flight paths. He says the actual killing of birds would only be used as a last resort. 

But even so, the airport still faces stark opposition from conservationists. Jim Blackburn is an environmental lawyer in Houston. He says the airport shouldn't even be open and that bird strikes will continue to be an issue because it's on one of the country's heaviest flight paths for migratory birds.

"They intentionally circumvented the environmental review procedures that would accompany a new airport in the manner. And by doing so, they basically put the airport in an inappropriate location and totally eliminated any type of environmental review."

Blackburn believes Houston Executive should be closed down. But as long as it stays open, airport officials say that they must do everything they can to protect passengers and pilots from bird strikes...even if it means using the permit in times of crisis.