Monday, January 19, 2015

Herd on the Runway: Airport Brings in Archers • Idaho City Says Growing Deer Population Poses Flight-Safety Risk, So it Invites Bowhunters

The Wall Street Journal
Jan. 19, 2015 5:10 p.m. ET

SANDPOINT, Idaho—One of Idaho’s most talked-about deer hunts took place last month not in the state’s spectacular backcountry, but at an airport within the city limits of this mountain community.

Archers staked out camouflaged hunting stands on the grounds of the Sandpoint Airport after the city authorized bows and arrows to cull a herd of white-tailed deer that officials say cause safety concerns for pilots.

It may not have been picturesque, but hunters say it was convenient. “I can drop the grandkids off at school, hunt for two hours and go back home,” said Nora Kedish, a 65-year-old retired notary, wearing full camouflage gear one chilly December morning.

But none of the hunters killed a single deer—prompting the airport’s manager to ask state officials for another hunt this year. “If they extend the hunt, I will be No. 1 [to sign up] with my hand stuck up in the air,” Ms. Kedish said.

Urban deer hunts are playing out across America as cities and towns attempt to curb surging numbers of the herbivores. The U.S. population of white-tailed deer, the most common across the nation, has soared to about 30 million from about 350,000 in 1900—creating hazards including increased collisions between animals and aircraft, according to a 2014 Federal Aviation Administration report.

FAA figures show 1,070 collisions between planes and deer in the U.S. between 1990 and 2013, causing an estimated $45.6 million in damage and other economic costs. The agency said it didn’t have information on any resulting injuries.

With fewer predators to keep the deer in check, cities have resorted to limited hunts, often with archery weapons such as crossbows. Rifles typically are prohibited from the city hunts out of safety concerns.

In West Virginia, about a dozen cities have authorized deer hunts, including the state capital of Charleston, which began them in 2005. Urban hunts also have been approved in Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Minnesota.

Many of the hunts are restricted to areas outside populated neighborhoods, such as parks or airports. Hunters often are required to shoot from elevated stands, which means errant arrows are likely to hit the ground, not fly out of the hunting zone.

In Sandpoint, a city of about 7,600 in the Idaho panhandle, the hunt last month was restricted to the more remote, industrial side of the airport, which serves small, private planes. Airport managers say the deer—numbering as many as 50 at times—have grown so accustomed to humans that they often wander onto an active runway, creating a safety hazard.

In 2008, pilot Jan K. Lee was taking off in his private Alon Aircoupe A2 when he hit a buck in full sprint. The deer destroyed the right wing, and itself, causing the plane to veer into a fence and nearly shear in half, said Mr. Lee, 62, a home inspector who somehow escaped serious injury along with his wife, Paula.

With as many as 80 takeoffs and landings daily (though no commercial flights) at the airport, Mr. Lee is among many here worried about a potential aviation disaster. “We could lose a lot of people,” he said.

The hunts aren’t without opposition. Ashley Byrne, campaign specialist with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said communities should use nonlethal methods like pepper spray to deter the deer.

In an email to Sandpoint airport managers, PETA said “bowhunting is among the cruelest and most ineffective forms of wildlife control.” Wounded animals, the email said, can suffer deaths that are “slow and agonizing; it can take weeks for some to perish!”

David Schuck, the Sandpoint airport manager, said that after at least two nonfatal accidents and numerous near-collisions in recent years, airport employees tried frightening the deer by shooting shotgun blanks and chasing them in vehicles. But, he said, the animals always return.

Ultimately, the airport needs a wildlife fence around its boundary, at an estimated cost of $600,000 to $900,000, Mr. Schuck said. Such fences are common at other airports. But he said the facility won’t be able to get federal funding for it until 2019, after it acquires more land and clears other hurdles.

In the meantime, Mr. Schuck asked the City Council in November to waive an ordinance against discharging weapons, including arrows, in the city during the deer-hunting season. The measure passed, 3-2.

Despite strict safety rules, hunters jumped at the opportunity. Dave Bangle, 62, said the numerous restrictions made the hunt difficult. He unleashed one arrow at a deer that passed his stand on a recent day. It missed, though barely.

“It’s just patience,” Mr. Bangle said. “You wait for him to walk by.”

Story, comments and photos:

Bowhunter Dave Bangle crouches in front of his deer blind at Sandpoint Airport last month. 


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