On a clear day between major December storms in Anchorage, two bull moose strolled leisurely through deep snow on the frozen surface of Lake Hood. Once on shore, the animals broke into a gallop away from Cody Thompson, a wildlife specialist with USDA’s Wildlife Services.
Thompson fired a paintball rifle toward the ground, which made gentle pop noises, aiming not to hit them but to startle them into motion from the nearby airstrip, which was closed at the time.
“Sometimes it works better than others,” he said of the tactic.
Thompson said the airport area has a resident population of moose.
“I wouldn’t say that any of the moose we have here are a nuisance. They’re just trying to do their best to survive the winter and sometimes they wander into our territory,” Thompson said. “And that’s fine. We just get them out as safely as possible.”
The Wildlife Services team is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, said Spencer Nelsen, a wildlife biologist who oversees it.
“Our job is just to help the planes and the wildlife to keep from colliding with each other,” Nelsen said. “When that happens, a lot of times it damages the planes. And it’s never good for the wildlife. They always lose.”
Trudy Wassel, deputy director for Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, which includes Lake Hood, said the airport contracts with USDA to provide the mitigation.
“They are very mission-critical to operations here at this airport,” Wassel said.
Monitoring wildlife and hazing them from harm’s way is work done 24 hours a day, seven days a week from spring to fall, Nelsen said. Five specialists work with him from April to October. During winter, two wildlife specialists and Nelsen team up to monitor airport property about 10 hours a day.
“In winter, the species we’re most concerned with are moose, bald eagles and common ravens,” Nelsen said.
Shooing birds is a relentless challenge, he said, and changes from year to year. A few years ago, Nelsen said, Wildlife Services relocated more than 30 short-eared owls from the area. Sandhill cranes can be a focus some years, while other years it’s gulls.
“When this calendar year ends, we will have hazed over 25,000 birds off the airport,” Nelsen said.
Wildlife challenges vary from airport to airport around the country, he said. Anchorage has unique mammal concerns. “No one else has to deal with moose and very few have to deal with bears the way we do,” he said.
Wassel said she is unaware of any negative encounter between airport operations and wildlife.
“Safety for our customers and the passengers and the airlines is number one, but we also take care of the animals as well,” she said.
[Previously: Soldotna firefighters rescue moose from basement]
On this day, Thompson, working from a pickup truck, followed the bull moose after they crossed the road toward the airstrip. He drove on the perimeter, startling the moose into crossing toward fencing on the east side. Thompson then trudged through deep snow to open a gate on the east side of the airstrip, then used the pop of his paintball gun, and the occasional whistle and thump on his truck door, to urge the bulls toward it.
The low-speed rodeo was successful. The twin bulls turned to look at Thompson as he closed the gate behind him, sealing them from easy airstrip access.
Thompson plodded through knee-deep snow and caught his breath back at his truck.
“The gate was the easiest and safest way for them to get out. Otherwise, they’d be back on the road in front of traffic,” he said.