U.S. Department of Agriculture partnership aids aviation safety, wildlife stewardship for Michigan Air National Guard

ALPENA, Michigan – The flight line at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center is a busy place.

As the year-round host for training events like Northern Strike – the largest joint reserve-component exercise in the Department of Defense – it’s not uncommon to see more than 60 aircraft on Alpena’s tarmac at any given time. During Northern Strike 19 alone, upwards of 450 flights launched from the airfield during a two-week period.

Adding to this high-intensity operations tempo, military aircraft aren’t the only wings soaring over the base.

Located in the picturesque woodlands of Northern Michigan, a stone’s throw from Lake Huron and other natural waterways, the training center in Alpena attracts a significant migratory bird population. This presents a challenge for the one man who shoulders the daunting challenge of overseeing the airfield’s safety program: Senior Master Sgt. Pat Czajka.

Sitting in his office on a brisk autumn day, Czajka admits that out of thousands of potential hazards that pose a risk to personnel safety on the airfield, one of his greatest concerns is the risk that low-flying birds and wildlife pose to aircraft on approach and take off.

“You can’t even begin to quantify the worst-case scenario,” says Czajka, gesturing for emphasis. “Imagine an A-10 [Thunderbolt II] hitting a goose and crashing, killing the pilot and causing millions of dollars in damage. That’s the whole point of the program: to properly manage the risk of a bird hitting an aircraft.”

Czajka is talking about the Department of Defense’s Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Program, or BASH, which aims to provide the safest flying conditions possible through habitat modifications and other methods to discourage aviary wildlife from an airfield’s vicinity. Across the Air Force an average of more than 4,000 bird strikes are reported each year, equaling tens of millions of dollars in damages. Czajka explains that understanding the behavior and movements of birds in relation to the airfield environment is a critical factor in reducing the likelihood of an aircraft bird strike.

In other words, the program is highly time-consuming and labor intensive.

“There’s no one thing that manages the BASH program,” Czajka says. “It’s a multiple-pronged effort.”

Since taking on the job of chief of safety for Alpena CRTC in 2011, Czajka says one question has loomed over the management of the base’s BASH program: how does one man do it all?

That’s where Dane Williams, a wildlife specialist with the Gaylord office of the United States Department of Agriculture comes in.

Since 2012, Alpena CRTC has received an annual grant from the National Guard Bureau which enables the USDA to partner with the Michigan Air National Guard for assistance with wildlife management at the airfield. Since then, that grant has steadily increased as results from Williams’ work became more and more evident.

“If I were to die tomorrow, I’d die knowing that because of what we’ve been able to do with our USDA partners, a good BASH program has been implemented on this base,” Czajka says.

Today, Williams is behind the wheel of a pickup, making the rounds to check on a series of live traps he monitors around the airfield. It’s a trip he makes two to three times a week.

“I don’t know anybody who’s better to work with than Pat,” Williams says with a grin. “We’ve gotten to be really tight, as often as I’m out here.”

Williams climbs out of the truck and heads over to a grassy area not far from Alpena’s runway. During Northern Strike, this part of the airfield is used as a drop zone for parachuting cargo.

“The airport is surrounded by water, so there are constantly going to be water fowl coming in,” he says, pointing toward the lily pads and cattails of Lake Winyah, a short distance from the end of the runway.

“The most I’ve been using out here is eight pole traps. We also have three Swedish goshawk traps out here right now.”

Williams explains that the pole traps, designed to harness a bird safely when it perches on top, are ideal for the wide-open spaces lining the airfield.

“That trap has been modified to be really gentle. It just catches the bird by the foot, and they fall to the ground.”

He puts his hand between the pieces of metal and springs the trap, demonstrating its light tension.

“A small kid could put their hand in it.”

Using pole traps, Williams has successfully live-captured approximately 25 kestrels this year. The Swedish goshawk traps have successfully live-captured several snowy owls, as well as other bird species including red tailed hawks. After Williams tags and bands the birds, they are relocated to wildlife areas near Gaylord.

“We’re trying to do it the way that’s safest, most humane for the bird or animal, and we’re trying to do it effectively,” he says.

So far, none of the birds he has tagged and released have returned to Alpena.

While the BASH program remains focused on reducing the risk of aircraft bird strikes, Williams looks at far more than just the existing population of migratory species around the airfield.

His work also encompasses the management of conditions and factors that could lead to the arrival of new species.

“Lately, I’ve been watching what the beavers have been doing at this channel,” he said, kneeling to check a trap set underwater. “The beavers aren’t a risk for a strike, but if they build a dam here, it’ll start backing up the water to create a habitat that will be more likely to attract ducks – which of course are a risk.”

Williams also monitors other factors, like the length of grass at the airfield, which could deter wildlife from the area by eliminating food sources.

By all estimates, Williams’s work at Alpena is making the airfield safer for humans and wildlife alike. According to Lisa Kruse, environmental program manager for Alpena CRTC, the airfield’s BASH program is contributing to the implementation of an integrated Natural Resource Management Plan, which outlines the base’s holistic approach to environmental stewardship.

“I think the fact that we can manage species and still complete the mission is really great,” she says. “I think most people have the impression it’s either one or the other.”

Kruse lists a long series of environmental policies that DoD installations are required to comply with including the Sikes Act – which provides for cooperation by the Department of the Interior and DoD with state agencies in planning, development, and maintenance of fish and wildlife resources on U.S. military installations – and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires Federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of their actions.

“Most people would have no idea how much effort we put into appropriately managing our natural resources,” she says. “It’s a balance and we work really hard at it.”

According to Air Force Col. John Miner, Alpena CRTC commander, the base’s partnership with USDA will continue into the foreseeable future, and will only grow as the USDA this year has begun implementing a similar BASH program at the nearby Grayling Aerial Gunnery Range.

“Given our location here in Alpena, this base is very interwoven with the local community and the natural habitat that surrounds us,” says Miner. “Working with the USDA, they’ve been supportive when we don’t have enough manpower to manage a program this large. They’re helping us maintain our commitment to being the best stewards we can possibly be in terms of safety and respect to the environment – it’s really become an enduring relationship here with the USDA.”

For Czajka, the USDA partnership means peace of mind knowing the right team is in place to maximize the airfield’s operational needs with safety.

“I don’t care if it’s a military aircraft or civilian,” he says. “If we can save a life, it’s totally symbiotic.”

Date Taken: 01.07.2020
Date Posted: 01.07.2020 08:27
Story ID: 358323
Location: ALPENA, MI, US 

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U.S. Department of Agriculture partnership aids aviation safety, wildlife stewardship for Michigan Air National Guard