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Anchorage landfill hazers battle eagles, ravens, gulls

Michelle Theriault Boots
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

The bald eagle may be America's bird, but as the employees of Anchorage's Municipal Landfill know, it is also an incorrigible trash hound.

Each winter, 200 to 300 eagles take up residence at the main city landfill off Hiland Road in Eagle River.

In the stark landscape of pits and snow-covered trash mountains, bald eagles line the horizon, watching with what can only be called eagle-eyed interest as trucks unload the city's waste, waiting for the magical moment when a dumpster of fish guts might arrive.

Beyond where landfill visitors can see, so many eagles gather on some winter days that it "looks like the Russian River" at the height of the salmon run, said Shane Christiansen, who works as a senior engineering technician at the landfill.

Landfill workers admit to being occasionally dazzled by their sheer numbers.

But more often, they're seen as a hazard -- one the city spends roughly $150,000 each year to combat.

Eagles aren't uncommon in Anchorage, but it isn't thought of as an "eagle town," like Homer or Haines in Southeast Alaska, where thousands gather each year on the Chilkat River.

Eagle River takes its moniker from the bird, but scientists say there are no accurate counts of the area's eagle population. What is known, says Alaska Department of Fish and Game area biologist Jessy Coltrane, is that eagles build their nests in cottonwood trees in riparian areas and like to feed on fish in the summertime. The population is generally considered to be at a healthy number.

In winter, they gravitate toward easy sources of food, like moose road kills and, inevitably, landfill trash.

That's where the problems come.

Landfill birds, which also include ravens year-round and gulls in warmer months, peck away at things like the dump's leachate liners, damage equipment and follow trucks and bulldozers like flying shadows.

The most serious safety concern is an active runway only 6,000 feet away at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.

FEDERAL EAGLE HARASSERS

Birds and planes don't mix.

In September 1995, a jet taking off from Elmendorf hit a flock of geese, sucking birds into the engines and causing the plane to crash. All 24 crew members onboard were killed.

It's dangerous to have thousands of birds loitering adjacent to an active runway, says Mark Madden, the city's director of Solid Waste Services.

So the city employs designated "hazers" to discourage eagles and other avian visitors from getting comfortable at the landfill.

Landfill staff apply annually for a "take" permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow hazing through a program called "Avian Vector Control."

That alone is tricky; migratory birds are protected under federal law. And bald eagles were once listed as an endangered species nationally. (They were delisted in 2007.)

So the landfill contracts federal employees through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services program to harass the birds.

The $153,000 contract pays for labor, vehicles and supplies for the bird hazers. They also patrol the landfill transfer station in Midtown.

The idea: The federal government regulates the birds so federal workers are responsible for harassing them.

One of those hazers is Bob Tierney, who has done battle with the birds in an epic, cartoon-style game of cat and mouse since at least 2005.

Tierney, 80, occupies a strange perch in the federal bureaucracy: a person employed by the government to, in part, harass the national bird.

The tools of his trade include a Dodge Ram pickup and a shotgun that shoots firecrackers.

The idea of a job that involves cruising around a landfill all day with the express purpose of shooting firecrackers at birds might appeal to more than a few.

Madden says he gets frequent inquiries from would-be applicants for bird hazing positions.

Tierney has many tales of his ongoing battles with the birds but says he isn't supposed to speak to the news media without permission from a chain of command of U.S. Department of Agriculture public relations officials at least two states deep.

The chain of command did not grant an interview.

Landfill workers agree that Tierney knows the birds and their tricks better than nearly anybody.

And truth be told, eagles, though numerous and bold, are the least of his worries.

It's the ravens -- the conniving, vindictive, terrifyingly intelligent ravens -- that really wreak havoc.

These are the same ravens that somehow -- everyone swears -- picked out the personal truck of a worker who had been on harassment duty and proceeded to eat all the black rubber from his windshield wipers.

The birds are so smart the landfill workers sometimes switch pickup trucks with the bird harasser patrol to try to trick the ravens. But even exchanging a white truck for a red one rarely works.

"We do get into bird psychology some days," said Christiansen, with a sigh.

'US AGAINST THEM'

Eagles, by comparison, are the landfill's muscle: big wingspan, talon-bearing but not accomplished tricksters. They intimidate by their size and will not hesitate to stare down a bulldozer in pursuit of a load of fish guts, said Madden.

"A pretty impressive piece of equipment," he said, nodding.

While ravens are bold and shameless, eagles "tend to be a little more respectful," Madden said.

But they do have limits.

When wily ravens challenge eagles for food, the eagles usually play it cool -- up to a point. Then they've been known to suddenly launch into dramatic displays, like inverting midair with a screech and talons out, Christiansen said.

"They'll take the harassment for a long time," he said, "and then they've had enough."

While ravens will eat just about any foodstuff Anchorage residents throw away, eagles stick to meat.

They "sit in the trees and have food envy over what they might be able to get out of the landfill," Madden said.

Their excellent eyesight allows them to spot small scraps in household trash from a considerable distance.

For hungry, overwintering eagles, the greatest holiday of all is when a trash bin of fish guts arrive. Or a roadkill carcass. Or perhaps "somebody's pet horse that has kicked the bucket," Christiansen said.

When that happens, any pretense of avian politeness disappears.

"It's a feeding frenzy," Christiansen said.

"It's us against them," Madden added.

Landfill workers make sure no garbage is left uncovered for more than few hours, 10 at most, Madden said. The day's trash is covered before workers go home, which helps to deter birds -- to a degree.

The eagles also enjoy a special protected status. Unlike the ravens and gulls, bald eagles are covered under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act -- meaning no matter the hijinks they involve themselves in, hazing can't include killing them.

The landfill's operating permit requires the facility to "control birds so they do not become a health or safety problem."

From the late 1980s to 2004, the city invested millions of dollars in netting to try to keep them out. City workers ended up spending a lot of time fixing holes. The birds never left.

For now, hazing is keeping things under control. In bureaucratic theory, the landfill should be bird free.

"Good luck with that," Christiansen said.

But as long as eagles remain scavengers and as long as humans throw away meat scraps and fish innards, America's bird will likely continue to feast on Anchorage's trash.

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By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News