The scrubby hills between East Sand Creek and East Drennan Road in Colorado Springs are a perfect spot for coyotes. There are rabbits and mice to chase, crevices to hide in and sunny spots to snooze in. The only drawback is that the coyotes must share the place with the Colorado Springs Airport.
More than a hundred planes land or take off at this airport every day, including jetliners for American Airlines, Continental, Delta, TWA and United. But the planes don't seem to bother the coyotes.
It's the coyotes that bother the planes.
People who work at airports don't joke around about public safety. As the assistant director of aviation for the Colorado Springs Airport, David Bird is one of those people. In August 1998, he says, a small business jet landing at the airport hit a coyote on the runway with its main landing gear. The animal was flattened, and safety concerns swelled.
"We feel like we were lucky they hit it with the main gear, because it's bigger than the nose gear," Bird says. "If you are landing at 150 miles an hour and you hit a bump weighing 35 pounds, well, it's not something you want to encounter, especially at night. Animals and planes converging at the same point is not a good thing. Birds getting sucked into the engines are as much or more of a hazard than an animal. But any wildlife is a potential threat."
Coyotes can distract pilots, making them swerve to avoid hitting the animals. Theoretically, coyotes could even be sucked into a plane's engine or cause a piece of landing gear to collapse. "We've had pilots who have held takeoff in order for a coyote to get out of the way," Bird notes. "We have sightings every week by pilots or ground personnel."
Although an eight-foot-high chain-link fence that encircles most of the three runways keeps the deer and the antelope out of the airport's 7,100 acres, coyotes can dig right under it.
"Airports ultimately encroach on some native wildlife and habitats, which is one of the unfortunate products of development, but development is going to occur," Bird says. "Coyote populations are expanding. They're even an urban problem in some cities, and almost every airport in the country has to deal with them in one way or another."
But it was the way the Colorado Springs Airport dealt with coyotes that caused the real trouble.
In February 2000, the airport hired a well-known exterminator: Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The airport enlisted Wildlife Services's help because it was beginning to develop a "wildlife-control plan," a step required by the Federal Aviation Administration whenever a collision between a plane and an animal results in damage to the plane. In this case, it was a Canada goose -- not a coyote -- that was to blame. Because coyotes were mentioned as a possible threat, however, the FAA asked the airport to do something about them, too.
Wildlife Services specializes in killing anything that is to deemed to be a nuisance or a threat by a business -- mainly ranchers and farmers -- or a government agency. Coyotes fall into this category on a regular basis, and the agency is good at killing them. Usually it shoots coyotes, but that means someone with a rifle has to be present whenever the critter comes around. So for the airport's coyote problem, Wildlife Services applied for a license to use leg-hold traps.
By passing Amendment 14 in 1996, Colorado voters made these traps, along with neck snares, illegal, deeming them cruel and inhumane. The only exceptions to the law are when public health and safety are threatened, and it's up to individual counties to determine when such conditions exist. Wildlife Services argued that the coyotes at the Colorado Springs Airport were a threat to airplanes, but it failed to convince the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment of this on its first two tries. The third time, in June 2000 -- and with an assist from the FAA -- the agency got permission to trap two families of coyotes, ten animals in all.
On June 7, the first coyote was trapped -- and then shot and killed by a Wildlife Services officer. A second coyote was trapped on July 10. It was also shot, along with a third coyote who was nearby.
Connie Perham doesn't like it when coyotes are captured in leg-hold traps and then shot. In fact, Perham, who is co-founder of the Pikes Peak Wilderness Preservation Society, doesn't like it when coyotes are killed by any means. She and members of some other organizations -- Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, Sinapu and the Predator Defense Institute -- had argued against the airport's leg-hold permit application. They'd activated phone trees, sent action-alert e-mails and used other standard techniques to rally support. Both the airport and the health department received hundreds of letters and e-mails.
The environmental coalition took it further on July 27, suing the airport and the USDA, claiming that Wildlife Services hadn't conducted an environmental assessment before trapping the coyotes -- a violation of its own rules -- and that the airport hadn't completed its wildlife-control plan.
The airport stopped using traps as a result of the suit, although Wildlife Services shot eight more coyotes over the next five months. In late February, the airport settled the case. "The trapping was very unsuccessful anyway," Bird says.
Now the airport is building an underground mesh fence to keep the coyotes from digging. "It's of more benefit to the airport to deter animals from getting in, so you don't have to take care of them in the first place," Bird says. "Portland International Airport has used it with some success."
About 20,000 feet of mesh fence have been laid, at 50 cents a foot. Fresh dirt on top shows where the coyotes have dug but so far failed to get through. The rest of the fence -- several miles' worth, Bird says -- should be in place within two years, in accordance with the terms of the suit's settlement. A small electrified wire has been added in some areas as an extra bit of discouragement.
Some coyotes may still insist on going around the fence -- there are a few breaks where the airport connects with Peterson Air Force Base and some other operations that share runway space -- and one has even been spotted jumping over it. In those cases, the airport has reserved the right to shoot the animals.
Perham understands that. "They almost have to do it for passenger safety," she concedes. But the mesh fence should be enough to discourage all but the most wily coyotes.
Once the judge signs off on the settlement, the two sides will meet every month to talk about the airport's wildlife-control plan. According to Bird, that plan is still being developed.
No one at the airport likes killing coyotes, he adds. "It's one of those unenviable things you have to do when you run an airport. No one relishes it.
"But our mandate is to run a safe airport, and that is the mandate that we hold dearest. We take safety very seriously here."