NEW YORK — A year and a half after Canada geese forced an airliner to splash down in the Hudson River, officials are rounding them up in almost every part of the city – but flocks are still free to take off around John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The wild birds were at the center of a government vs. government battle on Tuesday.
A National Park Service official told The Associated Press that, for now, his agency won't touch the hundreds of birds living in a refuge near Kennedy airport's runways.
"Our mission is to protect and preserve wildlife – that's a law – and it isn't a given that the removal of the geese is necessary to protect the flying public," said Dave Avrin, the official at the Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.
Officials of other federal and local agencies want the Park Service to limit the goose population in the only U.S. wildlife refuge under its jurisdiction, but these efforts have failed.
"We can only go onto properties where we have permission," said Carol Bannerman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, which this month renewed measures to cull New York flocks after last year's near-disaster.
On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport, a dozen miles north of Kennedy in Queens. The Charlotte, N.C.-bound plane, carrying 155 people, struck a flock of geese, which entered its engines and killed their power. Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger glided into the river rather than risk crashing in a densely populated area trying to reach an airport.
The passengers and crew members were rescued from the floating plane, and their pilot became an instant hero, whose daring water landing was dubbed "Miracle on the Hudson."
Before Flight 1549, 78 Canada goose strikes with aircraft were reported in New York from 1999 to 2008, according to Federal Aviation Administration figures.
Almost 1,200 such collisions across the country from 1990 to 2008 caused millions of dollars in damage to civil aircraft, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. In that time, 11 people died as a result of aircraft collisions with birds, but not necessarily geese, the FAA said. An Air Force surveillance plane struck Canada geese after taking off from a base in Alaska in 1995, killing all 24 people aboard.
The government is taking action to keep such accidents to a minimum.
Under a USDA agreement with New York City just after the Flight 1549 scare, Canada geese could be removed from parks and other city-owned properties within a 5-mile radius of Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, two of the nation's busiest. The radius was expanded this month to 7 miles, with about 800 geese being rounded up and euthanized with gas, according to USDA Wildlife Services in New York.
Such measures "have helped to reduce the risk of a future catastrophe," said Commissioner Cas Holloway, of the city's Environmental Protection Agency.
By refusing to take "knee-jerk action" at its urban refuge, Avrin said the Park Service is simply abiding by the National Environmental Policy Act, which dictates that an environmental impact assessment be made before anything that could affect a natural habitat is done.
"We believe people's health and safety to be of paramount importance, but we have a dual mission: to preserve and protect wildlife," said Avrin, head of the Division of Resources Management at Gateway, which spans 26,000 parkland acres in New York and New Jersey.
He said it's up to the USDA to assess the environmental impact of disturbing geese in a 9,000-acre birding spot among bays and islands. He told the AP the USDA hasn't completed such a process.
The USDA's Bannerman responded that her agency has satisfied that requirement by concurring with a nationwide control order for Canada geese issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noting the potential hazard of the geese on aviation safety. The order was accompanied by an environmental impact statement that allows goose culling within 3 miles of any airport boundary if it's permitted by the landowner.
In this case, that's the Park Service. And that amounts to a Catch-22 for Bannerman.
"We cannot take geese off their property," she concluded.
The birds near Kennedy are now molting, shedding feathers and replacing them, and are unable to fly. By mid-July, they'll be airborne again, likely crossing the airport to reach open spaces and increasing the risk of colliding with planes, a government study said.
The New York metropolitan region, with Long Island and the northern suburbs, has about 20,000 resident Canada geese and at least as many passing through during migrating season, the state Department of Environmental Conservation said.
After the Hudson landing, the NTSB sent the feathers from the geese sucked into Flight 1549's engines to the Smithsonian Institution's Feather Identification Laboratory. Experts there determined the geese were migratory birds passing through New York, not resident geese like those at the refuge near Kennedy.
Therefore, in this case, culling resident geese wouldn't lessen the chances of a plane hitting the migratory ones.
Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations related to the airliner that ditched into the Hudson, saying if there are more collisions with large birds, the board wants the FAA to revise its certification standards for aircraft engines so they can withstand the larger birds. The geese struck by Flight 1549 were estimated to weigh about 8 pounds each; the plane's engines were designed to withstand birds weighing up to 4 pounds each.
However, the NTSB doesn't have the power to require FAA to act.
USDA efforts to control New York's goose population include oiling eggs in nests to prevent them from hatching. At Kennedy and LaGuardia, a program to control bird populations through shooting, trapping and shooing them off runways has been in place since the 1990s.
The goose population at LaGuardia was reduced by 80 percent last year, the DEP said. But there's little change in the population around Kennedy.
Officials are working "to address any risks to the city's skies posed by wildlife," said Holloway, the DEP commissioner.
But there's one New York spot where geese are safe: the refuge abutting Kennedy airport.