MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- You’re walking down the air station on a warm Sunday afternoon when a furry little tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog, comes out from a bush and approaches you.
Struck with how cute you think he is, you decide to give him a piece of bread in hopes of becoming his friend. After a successful encounter, you start to notice him more as you walk by that same spot, and as always, you give the little guy a treat. Then you notice he has brought his friends and family. And soon enough, you don’t have enough bread to give to each of them.
As harmless as an encounter like that may seem at first, feeding the wildlife on base – particularly mammals and birds – can and has been proven to be a serious problem for the air station’s aviation operations.
Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni has a growing wildlife population. Birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians can be found in growing numbers throughout various locations, taking up temporary habitats on fields and near bodies of water.
Inherently having wildlife on an air station isn’t a problem, but it becomes one when they interact negatively with the operations of the airfield. In this case, it’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH.
“MCAS Iwakuni has a lot of wildlife,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Timothy Osterhout, an aviation safety officer with Marine Aeriel Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 152. “We have a large number of birds and smaller mammals that are in and around the area. They definitely affect airfield operations. We have to be very careful as we fly around here that we don’t strike any of the birds or animals on the ground. What normally happens is that we have our aircrew looking outside the aircraft at all times trying to observe any birds that are either in the flight path or moving through our flight path.”
As an aviation safety officer, Osterhout is part of a collective effort of groups and programs throughout the air station whose primary purpose is to record and analyze data of bird and wildlife activity on the installation in order to reduce and prevent bird and animal strikes of aircraft.
A key component of that effort is the BASH program, which brings together groups like the Natural Resources Program, scientists, airfield operations personnel and more to collect the data required to prevent incidents.
“BASH is a discipline of biology, engineering, and some degrees conservation and aviation that works to find tools for specific species and specific situations to reduce strike hazards,” said Taylor Huston, the Natural Resources Program manager. “Over the course of this last year and a half, there have been a lot of strikes or evasive maneuvers that some of us have witnessed firsthand. It just highlights the fact that this is a high-risk location, but there are actions being taken to understand and solve the problem.”
The BASH program makes recommendations based on studies they conduct. A particular one involved putting cameras across the airfield to observe the wildlife behavior. They took note of the kinds of species there were and what they were doing, and once they analyzed that data, they were able to spot trends and make recommendations to the program.
Typically, a lot of the activity from the animals and birds has to do with where they get their resources from. They are finding food resources on the airfield and throughout the installation, and according to individuals with the BASH program, it’s a problem that must be eliminated.
Station residents, services members and civilians alike, must become aware of the gravity of the situation and begin taking the proper precautionary steps to solve the problem.
“One of the things to know is that there is a lot of human activity that is increasing the amount of birds that we have here,” said Osterhout. “Specifically, we need to make sure that we are putting all our trash away and keeping it contained. We don’t need the trash out and about. That just increases the amount of birds that come in and start pecking through that. Additionally, we don’t want to feed the animals on the installation. These animals begin to get fed and become habituated. That means they are not afraid of humans, aircraft or anything else anymore. We’re going to increase their likelihood of coming up on approaching humans or aircraft because they are not afraid. Once you have that, where they are no longer afraid of people or the machinery, that’s where we start to get the potential for aircraft-animal interaction.”
Respecting the host nation’s environment and wildlife population is a priority for MCAS Iwakuni’s command. But in order to assure the continued safety of aviation personnel, including the birds and animals themselves, station residents must quit interacting with the wildlife and do their part in making the installation less habitable.
No matter how adorable the tanukis may seem, or how much you enjoy feeding birds, be aware that you are adding to a complex problem that may not seem obvious. The personnel involved in reducing the bird and animal activities here are not looking to hurt or disrespect the wildlife. Their aim is to prevent the animals from harming people and themselves in the process.
“The main goal of BASH is to save lives,” said Huston. “We want to keep our aviators safe, make sure the aircrafts come back and are able to be used again. It’s all ultimately about bringing our folks home.”