Florida legislators prepare to introduce new airport wildlife management bill

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Florida legislators are drafting a proposal to grant airports immunity from state and local liabilities to implement wildlife mitigation plans following the Hudson River landing of a US Airways Airbus A320 caused by bird strikes on 15 January.

The Airline Safety and Wildlife Protection Act of Florida aims to give commercial airport directors leeway as they enact federally required wildlife hazard management plans without fear of prosecution if a protected animal is accidentally killed, says Representative Scott Plakon.

"If it comes down to the safety of human beings or the safety of wildlife, we're doing this to protect human beings," he says.

Plakon worked with Orlando Sanford International airport president and CEO Larry Dale in crafting the draft legislation.

The Sanford facility had ten reported animal strikes in both 2005 and 2006. Orlando Sanford had 17 reported strikes in 2007 and 17 strikes between 1 January 2008 and 25 August 2008, the latest data available. Three bald eagles were killed in strikes last year.

The airport has permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to use a variety of techniques to deter wildlife, including the use of paintball guns. However, airport employees or contractors may not directly shoot or kill an endangered species such as the bald eagle.

"They could prosecute us criminally if we were to accidentally kill the birds even though we were mandated to disperse them," Dale says.

So, the airport sought but failed to receive immunity from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the case of accidental death.

Dale is not the only airport executive to support The Airline Safety and Wildlife Protection Act.

The Florida Airports Council voted in favour of the draft on 4 February.

The US Airways landing brought bird strikes to everyone's attention but Florida has a lot of wildlife issues, council executive director Bill Johnson says.

"The more safeguards the better," he says.

Wildlife management can be complex because airports must meet federal, state and sometimes local permitting requirements.

Regulations often have conflicting goals, says Sarah Brammell, ESA Airports Consultancy managing director of environmental services-southeast.

For example, there are federal, state and sometimes local wetlands and species requirements. The permitting process becomes a real obstacle for airports, she says.

While there is a memorandum of agreement (MOA) among federal agencies pertaining to wildlife strikes, cooperation tends to be lacking among state and local regulators, Brammell says.

"It would be beneficial for airports if states looked at this [draft] legislation and curtailed it to their needs," she says.

The draft will likely be introduced with identical language in the House and Senate in the next two weeks, says Plakon. If voted into law, he says the act would likely take effect in July.

Meanwhile, Dale says he is pressing Congress to craft similar immunity legislation at the federal level.