Idaho biologists protect troops, planes in Afghanistan

Idaho StatesmanJanuary 14, 2013 

A week after Boisean George Graves arrived at Bagram Air Force Base, two mortars exploded about 100 yards from his office.

This temporary job assignment would be unlike any other in the wildlife biologist’s 27 years with USDA Wildlife Services.

“Although I didn’t fear for my life, it did make me realize that I was in a combat zone and not to take the overt security of the base for granted,” Graves said in an e-mail last week from Afghanistan.

He is one of four Wildlife Services biologists from Idaho who volunteered for four-month rotations at U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, embracing the mission as both patriotic duty and an opportunity to benefit science.

“It was kind of my way to give back to (the troops),” said Scott Stopak, who worked at the base in Kandahar early last year and has volunteered for a second tour, like Graves.

The biologists’ primary objective: Haze, trap and/or kill wildlife to keep it away from airstrips — preventing costly collisions that jeopardize the lives of military personnel.

During the two years they’ve been working at bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, bird strikes have dropped 65 percent and there’s been a $2.6 million reduction in damages, said Michael Begier, national coordinator of the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program.

WILDLIFE INVENTORY

They also have compiled a catalog of animal species in and near the bases in Afghanistan and provided a large number of hundreds of specimens to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“They’ve never documented migration of animals in the area,” Stopak said. “What’s unique about Kandahar is that two different flyways cross over.”

Identifying local wildlife, habitats and patterns of movement is critical in determining how to prevent conflicts with human activities. Wildlife are usually drawn to one of three things: water, food or cover.

Identifying problem-causing circumstances is sometimes easy, even if the solution isn’t. For example, there was a landfill near the end of the runway at Bagram Air Force Base.

“At times, there would be hundreds of black kites — which are similar to turkey vultures — circling at the end of the runway,” said Todd Grimm, Idaho state director of Wildlife Services. He spent spring of 2010 at the base.

“We’d see F-16s dodging birds,” he said.

The landfill has since been moved. Mowing down waist-high brush near the runway made it less attractive to wildlife.

Migration patterns and seasonal changes — the rainy season, for example —can radically affect the number of birds and other critters in the area. Bird strikes spike during spring migration; there were eight in one day in April at Kandahar.

New lights added to aircraft parking ramps at the base helped airmen with visibility, but also attracted more insects. That drew more birds.

The English house sparrow accounts for 80 percent of bird strikes at Kandahar. They know this, in part, because they send off splatter and feather samples to the Smithsonian for confirmation.

Hazing techniques are not effective on the house sparrows. “You can shoot pyrotechnics at them, and they don’t react to it,” Stopak said.

MILLIONS IN DAMAGE, LIVES THREATENED

The average annual cost to repair Air Force aircraft damage from bird strikes is more than $30 million, according Air Force Safety Center statistics.

But the problem isn’t limited to military aircraft.

The highest profile example was the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” in January of 2009, when Capt. Sully Sullenberger landed a commercial jet on the Hudson River.

In 2007, a black kite flew into an F-16 engine at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. The crew landed safely, but the damage was $1.2 million.

It wasn’t long before Air Force officials asked for help from Wildlife Services.

Wildlife Services is one of the oldest natural resource agencies in the country, beginning with protecting farm products in the late 1800s.

“Our work started with the military after World War II. In the Pacific there were large concentrations of nesting birds on the islands where we had bases,” Begier said. “We did some outreach overseas.”

Wildlife Services biologists provide assistance at 772 civilian and military airports across the country. Some are full-time “airport biologists,” as they call themselves.

CALL FOR HELP

The agency put out a call in 2009 for volunteers to go to Iraq and Afghanistan.

They stationed one biologist at Bagram and Kandahar bases in Afghanistan and Belad in Iraq.

“We needed our best people to hit the ground running,” Begier said.

Some of the best qualified volunteers in the country came from Idaho.

Todd Grimm of Nampa was the first. The 41-year-old former airman, reservist and guardsman has experience as an airport biologist in Chicago, New York, Miami and Kansas City.

Stopak, also a Nampa resident, is currently a wildlife disease biologist. But he spent more than 10 of his 16 years with Wildlife Services at Memphis International Airport, which is a joint-use military/civilian airfield.

Todd Sullivan, a Pocatello biologist going to Kandahar in February, previously worked at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE?

Graves is out before sunup to patrol the runway, scaring off loitering birds. Then he spends several hours checking his traps for jackals, sparrows and raptors.

After lunch, he checks mammal traps.

“Normally, I’ll have 100 to 150 traps out at any one given time,” he said.

When Grimm was at Bagram, he worked with Afghans to set and check traps.

After checking traps, it’s back to patrol the runway until dark. Then dinner, and writing reports.

And because it’s a war zone, the biologists must stay vigilant.

Graves picked up a piece of machined steel; experts at the base identified it as an anti-aircraft munition.

“They told me I was lucky it didn’t detonate, considering me kicking and handling it,” he said.

He once found a grenade. It apparently fell out of an Army helicopter.

The experience has helped all the biologists gain a deeper understanding of the challenges, sacrifices and dangers faced by the troops.

“It’s been a privilege and honor for me to have been given this opportunity,” Graves said.

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