Pam Mullins / Solent News / Rex Features / AP

Scientists recommend airspace reserves to protect flying wildlife

Conservation efforts mostly focus on the ground, but planes, turbines and buildings pose threats in the air, report says

Human use of airspace for transportation, energy generation and surveillance have contributed to deadly conflicts with wildlife — underlining the need for airspace reserves to protect flying animals and their habitat from ecological disaster, scientists said a report published Friday.

Human-wildlife conflicts in a crowded airspace,” published in the academic journal Science, said collisions with airplanes, wind turbines, power lines and buildings have become too common and are negatively affecting birds and other aerial creatures.

“The resulting collision and disturbance risks profoundly affect species ecology and conservation,” the authors said. “Yet aerial interactions between humans and wildlife are often neglected when considering the ecological consequences of human activities.”

Such collisions cause millions of animal deaths a year and have increased the extinction risk of several vertebrate species. In response, the scientists behind the report have called for the establishment of airspace reserves — especially in areas where flying animals breed and forage.

These would be “both temporal and permanent, in aerial wildlife hot spots where human-made structures may cause disproportionate damage,” the report said.

Billions of birds and other flying animals migrate each year, providing key ecological services for the environment including the transport of nutrients and parasites that enhance biodiversity, the report said.

Daily movements of aerial animals must be considered in establishing practices to reduce conflict with human activities and infrastructure, the report added.

Certain measures can be taken with regard to existing infrastructure that threatens flying animals, including the use of radar detection to allow a nearly instantaneous slowdown of wind-turbine speeds, the report said. Another measure includes modifying windows with ultraviolet light that birds can easily see and avoid.

Reducing the risk to migrating animals would require thinking ahead before building new infrastructure, according to the report, which suggested city planners consider the “abundance of animals flying nearby before building an airport,” which would “strongly reduce conflicts.”

New York City’s John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, for example, are built near the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Over 300 bird species have been sighted at the refuge, and about 70 species nest there regularly, according to the New York City Audubon, an organization that protects wildlife and habitat.

In the winter, the refuge hosts hundreds of geese at any given time, the group added. However, its proximity to JFK threatens the safety of birds and air travelers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which has organized the culling of birds in the refuge in an attempt to cut down on collisions with aircraft.

In December 2014, 750 geese were culled, and the year before about 300 geese were rounded up for slaughter from the refuge, local media reported. The USDA started removing geese from the New York City area in July 2004, New York Metro reported.

In the five years before the USDA began the culling, there were nine bird strikes on planes at LaGuardia. In the five years after started, there were only three, according to New York Metro. The most famous collision was when geese brought down the “miracle on the Hudson” flight in 2009, the paper added.

But experts said the geese in that collision were migrating from Canada and did not nest in the New York City area, and they argued that even if the USDA culled all the geese in the city, it could not prevent all such collisions.

The report suggested that officials identify airspaces with high densities of flying wildlife where air reserves can be created and also identify airspaces where humans and wildlife are already in severe conflict. In those cases, more dramatic measures would need to be taken, the report added.

“Many migratory movements follow well-defined transnational flyways, and restrictions for flying or operating wind farms in those areas would help reduce animal deaths,” the report said. “It is important to extend measures to national and regional levels, because many aerial animals routinely travel thousands of kilometers during migration.”

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