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Sunport Begins Lethal Control

By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
          The city began using a new form of lethal control to remove prairie dogs from the airport grounds on Wednesday.
        The action comes as the federal government has pushed Albuquerque International Sunport officials to remove wildlife for safety reasons.
        Animal advocates have called the elimination inhumane. A representative of the Prairie Dog Pals preservation group likened the new action to a "Middle Ages kind of mentality."
        "It's not an easy situation to deal with," said airport spokesman Daniel Jiron. "The bottom line is this is a (Federal Aviation Administration) mandate. It's easy for us to say, 'Well, the FAA is making us do this,' but we're in concert with this. We're an airport operator. Our job is to make sure that we provide an airport environment that is safe for the 6 million people that come through this facility a year."
        The airport risks fines, losing grant money and even the revocation of its operating certificate for noncompliance, he said.
        Yvonne Boudreaux of Prairie Dog Pals expressed disappointment in the action.
        "It's not that the people who work at the airport are dreadful people; they're not. They're decent people," she said. "But they're being forced to do something by the FAA that is little removed from voodoo; very little removed. There is no way that killing everything on the ground within the airport fence will prevent a bird from flying into an engine eight miles away after takeoff."
        The U.S. Department of Agriculture, under a $50,000-a-year, potential five-year contract with the airport, began using Fumitoxin — aluminum phosphide to produce phosphine gas — to exterminate the rodents.
        It's the latest lethal or nonlethal measure employed in recent years, including bittering agents to make the area less hospitable, trapping and relocation and carbon monoxide poisoning to try to control the burrowing animals that pose a safety issue, airport officials said.
        As a 2009 FAA inspection noted, "The constant efforts by ABQ to maintain the safety area (adjacent to the runways and taxiways) are visibly apparent but the prairie dog population continues to flourish and build burrows in these safety areas. This activity undermines the structure of the safety areas, reduces its load bearing capacity, and leaves holes that present a danger to aircraft landing gears."
        The holes or tunnels also could impede emergency vehicles, airport officials said, and the rodents also serve as prey, thus attracting other animals such as coyotes and birds.
        "Last month we had two bird strikes by aircraft," Jiron said. "One of them was a hawk that was carrying off a prairie dog."
        Airport officials say there have been about 10 coyote strikes since 2006.
        A recent survey found almost 8,000 burrows on airport grounds. The number of prairie dogs could number in the thousands, Jiron said.
        City officials said the wildlife incursion issue became more pressing after a 2009 US Airways flight struck birds and the aircraft was ditched in New York's Hudson River. "The FAA really began at that point to crack down," Jiron said.
        But it was an issue even before that incident.
        Jiron said the carbon monoxide control method used against the animals for three years was about 60 percent effective and that something more effective had to be used.
        The USDA contract also allows coyotes to be shot, but the airport additionally uses "harassment" measures to chase them off, and fencing to try to keep them out. The exterminators are watching out for animals like the federally protected burrowing owls.
        Jiron said nonlethal measures, such as bittering agents, will continue to be used to try to keep the prairie dogs away.

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