Coyote Management At Witham Field/Martin County (Florida) Airport

Unfortunately for coyotes and other wildlife who live near airports, deadly measures are often chosen to remove them from the area. Such was the case last November at Florida’s Witham Field Airport, in Martin County. The airport initiated a contract with the USDA’s badly mis-named “Wildlife Services” to trap the wild coyotes who were coming onto their fields.

Among other Martin County residents, wildlife advocate Susan Beattie, Director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation and Refuge Center in Palm City, strongly objected to the plan during a county commission meeting last November.

“We didn’t even know there were coyotes in the Town of Stewart, where the airport is located,” Beattie told us. “Just before Thanksgiving, a reporter called and told me about the proposed trapping. The excuse given was that residents didn’t want their pets mauled. I contacted County officials and also Becky Pomponio, of Project Coyote. Becky came down last month and we went to the airport together. The airport gave us access and we took photographs.”

Wildlife Watch wanted to know how things stand for the coyotes now, three months later, so we called the Airport Manager, George Stokus, to ask for current information. He explained the situation from the airport’s point of view.

“Coyotes have been an ongoing problem, causing actual safety hazards to aircraft and passengers. We had an accident a year ago,” Mr. Stokus said. “It was a collision involving a plane and two coyotes. It was a very sad thing for the coyotes, of course, but it was also a liability for the airport.”

The USDA trapping contract had been made last year, when the airport was temporarily without a permanent manager (Mr. Stokus was just recently appointed). The airport personnel are not allowed to remove the coyotes themselves because Florida Fish and Wildlife Services classifies them as “exotic” animals, and it is illegal for private citizens to relocate them. Thus, the USDA is used, and they chose to employ leg-hold traps.

Over the time period of a month, and at a cost to the airport of $5000, the USDA eventually caught and killed a total of three coyotes. Needless to say, this was not only cruel, but hardly cost-effective wildlife management.

Manager Stokus said that under Florida law, there are only two options for removal of coyotes: euthanize them or send them to canned hunt facilities. Stokus expressed distaste for both methods, regretting that the coyotes should have to suffer at all, but under the law he has no choice. He could be arrested or fined if he tried to move the wild dogs humanely.

Mr. Stokus is willing to work with wildlife advocates, has walked the field with them, identifying coyote scat, and suggests that Project Coyote and other concerned citizens negotiate with the FWS and other government entities to change the status of coyotes, as well as come up with more humane methods of dealing with them. As long as the law deems them “exotic,” options are limited.

C.A.S.H. applauds the fact that they are now trying to ensure a safe flying environment without harming wildlife. Witham Field is putting up $500,000 worth of new fencing, using “nuisance” technology such as loud noises to frighten coyotes away, and instituting a wildlife hazard assessment program. Stokus also asks that people living near the airport not feed wildlife, as this puts the animals in harm’s way.

Meanwhile, Beattie and Pomponio have discussed this matter with local officials. Martin County Administrator Taryn Kryzda said, “I believe it is important for those concerned to know that we are sensitive to their concerns and are doing what we can to prevent our prior situation from repeating. We will be working with Ms. Beattie to provide information to our residents relative to co-existing with wildlife in our County.”

Becky Pomponio has also networked with Portland International Airport (Oregon), whose wildlife management practices are mostly humane, including using exclusionary fencing and non-lethal re-locating of animals. Pomponio has also proffered several suggestions on how to humanely discourage coyotes from Witham Field.

When relocating coyotes, the following conditions have to be considered: The new location has to provide sufficient habitat, clean water and food sources for the coyotes; families should not be broken up; there may be other predators already there who will compete with the newcomers for resources; and the already resident human population may be at odds with the plan.

For now, the USDA killing contract at Witham Field has expired, but that is no guarantee it will not be renewed in future, which makes citizen action imperative. Unless state law is changed, coyotes may be needlessly trapped and killed.

Beattie’s positive contact with County Administrator Kryzda includes plans in progress for her to add a section to the County Parks and Recreation website about how people can live in harmony with wildlife. Beattie hopes that such a resource might well save the lives of some of Florida’s coyotes and other wildlife.

Wildlife Watch urges airport managers everywhere to collaborate with their local wildlife rehabilitators, and come up with kinder, more effective measures for protecting our wild fellow residents.

Please visit the Wildlife Watch Binocular, Spring 2011 issue  to see an example of pro-active, non-lethal methods of wildlife management at airports.


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