Planes vs. prairie dogs

Safety issues and wildlife collide


The City of Longmont is stuck between a rock and a hard place. More specifically, it’s stuck between its policy of trying to coexist with urban wildlife and federal regulations regarding airport safety.

In November, officials with the Federal Aviation Administration notified the city that Longmont’s Vance Brand Municipal Airport was in violation of federal regulations due to the presence of prairie dogs on airport property and adjacent city land. As a result, the airport won’t be eligible to receive tens of thousands in federal grant dollars until the city complies with the FAA’s order to remove all prairie dogs from those sites.

This marks the latest chapter in a continuing struggle between the city’s desire to preserve prairie dogs and its responsibility to maintain a safe airport. Last May, the city killed several hundred prairie dogs, fumigating burrows that were close to runways. The city also spent money repairing a fence meant to contain prairie dogs that lived elsewhere on the airport’s property. City officials hoped this would be enough to appease federal regulators.

However, the FAA, backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saw the containment fence as no impediment to the burrowing rodents, and on Nov. 13 informed the city that all prairie dogs had to be removed from the property and from nearby city land before the city would again be eligible for grant money.

Because there is no land available for the relocation of prairie dogs within Boulder County — state law prohibits moving prairie dogs across county lines without the other county’s approval — this almost certainly means that many of the prairie dogs currently burrowed beneath the snow at the airport will be killed.

Tim Barth, manager of Vance Brand Municipal Airport, said federal regulations require that a safety area be maintained on both sides of a runway. These areas must be free of ruts, bumps or other obstacles that might interfere with a pilot’s ability to control a plane that somehow strayed from the runway.

“On the type of aircraft that use this airport, one of those holes that a prairie dog has dug will swallow up a whole wheel and tire assembly,” Barth says. “It could sheer it off or flip the airplane. And so it becomes a human safety issue.”

Further, the containment fence acts as a perch for raptors that feed on prairie dogs, increasing the likelihood that a plane might have a catastrophic run-in with a large bird while taking off or landing.

“If there’s a bunch of birds around, it’s not too hard to imagine that you’re going to have a collision,” Barth says. “The last thing you want to do when you’re going 140 miles an hour is to hit a large bird. It’ll go right through the windscreen of an airplane.”

U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River after it collided with a flock of geese about 2,400 feet in the air after taking off from New York’s La Guardia airport.

“There’s no doubt that relocation is first and foremost the thing that we want to do, not just for the airport,” Barth says. “There are other properties within the city we’d like to relocate, too, but we cannot find any acreage in Boulder County to accept prairie dogs. There’s no property available. We approached Weld County and Weld County told us no.”

About 80 percent of Longmont’s open space exists in Weld County, which views the animals as “pests.”

Rather than simply fumigating the airport’s prairie dog population, Barth says the city is looking at live-trapping as many animals as it can and donating those to a raptor rehabilitation program. Those that are not trapped would likely be killed, he says.

Wildlife advocates who have long worked to protect prairie dogs are frustrated that the FAA is forcing the city into this position.

“The City of Longmont is trying to do the right thing for these prairie dogs,” says Longmont resident Ruth Bowman. “They understand this is a keystone species. They don’t want to kill these animals. They were working to gain control of the situation at the airport, but it seems like the FAA wanted these prairie dogs to be removed. There has to be some change making it much easier to find relocation sites.”

That change would have to come at the state government level — a long shot at best in a state with strong ranching and agricultural interests.

Bowman would like to see federal agencies do more to respect the position of local governments, such as Boulder County and Longmont.

“For cities that want to preserve their wildlife, there are no options when a federal agency says they have to be removed,” she says.

Barth says it’s unlikely that the city will take any action regarding the prairie dogs prior to the beginning of January.