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Health department nixes airport coyote kill 

Citing lack of proof that coyotes at the Colorado Springs Airport pose a threat to air traffic, the El Paso County Health Department has denied a second request by airport managers to begin trapping and killing the animals.

In a letter last week to airport's director of aviation, Gary Green, the Health Department official overseeing the matter said the airport had failed to provide key documentation requested by the Health Department.

The airport first asked permission to trap the coyotes in February, citing the potential for catastrophic accidents if small, private planes collide with wandering animals. The county health agency turned down the airport's first request in March, but the airport asked health officials to reconsider.

"I think we understand [the airport's] concern about this," said Dan Bowlds, chief of the health agency's Environmental Health Services Division. "But on neither occasion when we asked [airport officials] to substantiate their concerns, have they supplied us with what we need."


Coyotes -- deadly or dead

The matter comes under Health Department jurisdiction because of Amendment 14, passed by Colorado voters in 1996. The amendment bans the use of leghold and neck-snare traps on wild animals unless they pose a threat to public safety.

Under the voter-initiated amendment, public agencies must prove to local health authorities that the animals are a threat. Health officials can then issue temporary trapping permits.

In this case, the permit would have allowed officials with the United States Department of Agriculture to kill a pack of roughly 10 to 14 coyotes on the airport's 7,000-acre compound.

Ever since the permit was requested -- the first such request to come before the Health Department -- the issue has been hugely controversial. The Health Department has received dozens of phone calls, e-mails and letters mostly from those who oppose the plan.

This week, some of those critics praised Bowlds' decision. "I'm delighted to hear it," said Catherine Riddell, an opponent of the trapping plan. "The Health Department's reasoning was very sound. The airport simply provided no information or studies to substantiate their concerns."

In fact, opponents say, documents provided by the airport indicate there's little reason for alarm. According to the FAA statistics supplied by the airport staff, there have been only nine documented airplane collisions with coyotes in the United States since 1991. In three of those cases, there was minor damage and in no cases were injuries reported, the documents suggested. None of the strikes documented by the FAA occurred in Colorado.

"Just imagine the thousands of takeoffs and landings that occurred in those nine years throughout the United States and the number of coyote strikes is vanishingly small," said Don Girard, a retired military pilot who opposes the trapping plan.

But airport officials insist there is ample reason for concern. In August of 1998, for example, a mid-sized Falcon Jet hit a coyote at the Colorado Springs airport, killing the animal, said Green.

Though no people were injured, and the plane was not damaged, the incident highlights the need for animal control, Green said. "If a plane is touching down, [an animal] could take out the nose gear, or an inexperienced pilot swerves to miss the coyote, there could be a serious accident," he said.


It could happen

Both animal groups and airport officials agree that the 30- to 40-pound animals pose no threat to larger commercial aircraft, which would likely just squash a coyote like a bug.

But animal supporters dispute claims that coyotes are dangerous to smaller, charter planes. "The smaller aircraft travel at very low speeds," noted Girard. "In all my training, there was never any concern about coyotes."

But not all pilots agree. Kent Butler, the director of operations for Colorado Springs-based Arrow Aviation, said he didn't know much about the coyote trapping plan, but he said the animals could pose a threat to the kind of small craft he uses in his charter and flight-teaching business.

"It could damage the landing gear, or it could startle the crew, or if you have an inexperienced student pilot, [the student] could react instinctively and swerve," he said. "It definitely could cause some serious if not fatal accidents."

But in issuing its second denial, the Health Department said the airport failed to adequately document that concern. Since 1996, airport staff say they have "documented 43 incidents of coyote sightings at the airport," but no such documentation for those sightings was provided, said Bowlds.

For his part, Green said he was not sure what the airport's next move would be, though he said he'd likely submit more documentation to back up the airport's case.

"Over the long term, we want to explore some solutions that do not involve trapping," Green said. "But in the meantime, we're going to pursue getting this permit."

Local officials with the USDA's animal control division could not be reached for comment at press time. But wildlife groups who oppose the plan say that even if the coyotes posed a threat to public safety, the USDA's trapping plan is flawed because it might in fact result in increased coyote populations.

"What happens is that if you begin removing members of a population, then the litter sizes begin to increase as a natural response," said Riddell. "Also, if you remove the more dominant alpha dogs, then juveniles looking for territory will come in and there will be more breeding."

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