JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va --
The bald eagle, or Haliaeetus leucocphalus, is one of the most well-known symbols of the United States of America. The bird of prey’s features when fully grown include a wingspan of roughly six to seven and a half feet, bright yellow beak and famous white feathered head.
Recently, this living tribute to freedom has seen a population rebound and has made nests near the Joint Base Langley-Eustis (JBLE) flight line—not only putting the eagles in danger, but the F-22 Raptor pilots as well.
Bald eagles weigh between six and 14 pounds on average and fly at speeds in excess of 75 miles per hour when diving.
The F-22 Raptor, the United States Air Force’s premier 5th generation fighter, has a takeoff speed of 120 knots, or 138 miles per hour according to the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center.
If a Raptor and eagle collided, the eagle would disintegrate and the Raptor would have significant damage and could possibly crash. Lives could be lost.
The bald eagle, however, is a protected species by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty. This was later extended into the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940, signed by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Remarkably, the bald eagle has exceeded population goals set in the Endangered Species Act of 1973. As of 2007, the bald eagle has been delisted as an endangered species and moved into the protected species category
How do you balance the desire to protect a protected species while also reducing the risk for loss of life? Team JBLE partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, the Air Force Safety Center and the non-profit Conservation Science Global to humanely move the bald eagles out of harm’s way.
Using a net system activated by remote rockets, a wildlife biologist and ecologist safely captured the bald eagles after baiting them with fish and roadkill deer carcasses. To avoid removing mother eagles from their eggs, mothers are released back into the wild during their breeding period, and relocation attempts are made later in the year.
“By generating new science to help us address the conflict between eagles and airfield use, we can better protect the flying mission, prevent mishaps which can cost millions, and preserve the safety of both people and wildlife,” said Alicia Garcia, 633d Civil Engineer Squadron Natural Resources program manager. “That is a significant benefit to both our mission and wildlife. The eagles have become very numerous in recent years, which is a great environmental success story, but creates new challenges related to Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazards (BASH).”
Ultimately, the project aims to relocate the bald eagles to the Charlottesville, Virginia area due to its lower density of airfields. The project began in September, 2020 and will last until October, 2022.
Relocating isn’t the only thing the U.S. Air Force does to prevent BASH issues.
“Everything from putting up fences to making sure the grass is a certain length are all mitigation techniques prescribed in Air Force Instruction 91-212,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Will Boss, Air Force Safety Center, or AFSEC, wildlife ecologist. “Ultimately we want to make the flight line as unattractive as possible to birds and other wildlife.”
In these early phases of the relocation project, eagles are mounted with tracking beacons so the team can track the population’s movements and set traps in different locations based on the data collected.
“The beacon can send us data as fast as each second to every 15 minutes on the eagle’s location,” said Jeff Cooper, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resource wildlife biologist. “This way, we can see how they’re using the landscape and airspace around [JBLE].”
The VDWR is providing their services at no cost to JBLE. AFSEC plans to utilize the information from this project at other installations in the future.
“Although this project focuses on [JBLE], the results have national implications,” said Kyle Russell, AFSEC BASH team deputy chief. “[This] will aid wildlife professionals across the country to make informed management decisions for reducing eagle-aviation conflicts to ensure the safety of aircrews and effective conservation of this valuable national treasure.”
The project has a deep personal meaning to the team members involved.
“I am so proud to be part of a team that is driving management biology for this species forward,” said Garcia. “I am also proud to be able to help determine how we can protect our service members from the hazards associated with a large bird strike. The people operating those aircraft are moms and dads. They are our nation’s sons and daughters. When we do all we can to prevent both people and animals from a dangerous interaction, that is a win. It’s the kind of effort that makes me love my job.”