New Weapon in the Sky

Casper Star Tribune

By CHRISTOPHER SMITH
Associated Press writer

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho’s congressional delegation and the administration of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne spent the past two years convincing the Federal Aviation Administration to give ranchers permits to shoot coyotes and other wild predators while flying overhead in powered parachutes and ultralight flying machines.

After initially refusing to allow the state to issue aerial gunning permits for experimental aircraft operated by non-certified pilots, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey relented last spring and agreed to come up with “the most appropriate means of accommodation,” according to correspondence obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

The FAA is now allowing Idaho to issue permits to ranchers for aerial shooting of predators to protect livestock if their vehicle qualifies as a “light sport aircraft” under new FAA regulations. The new category has spawned a squadron of unconventional flying craft known as “aerial ATVs.”

“These are the newest, hottest things for ranchers,” said Allen Kenitzer, a spokesman for the FAA in Renton, Wash. “This is something people out West really wanted, to be able to use these aircraft out in the middle of nowhere to do the things they need to do.”

But wildlife activists say the use of kit-built and experimental flying contraptions for airborne attacks on wild animals is dangerous and absurd.

“I’m covering my eyes and laughing,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Boulder, Colo., coordinator of a national coalition of environmental groups that wants to end aerial gunning of wildlife. “It’s unsafe even when you are in a plane that has a stronger engine than these ultralights have.”

State law authorizes the Idaho Department of Agriculture to issue permits for people to “shoot, capture, harass or kill” wildlife that is threatening livestock while the person is airborne in an aircraft. The practice did not get FAA scrutiny until 2003, when a southeastern Idaho rancher was cited by the FAA for illegally using his powered parachute — a cage-like cockpit with a motorcyle-size engine and propeller suspended from a parachute — to shoot coyotes.

The federal agency determined that because ultralight craft could only be flown for sport and recreation. Using them for livestock protection or to collect a bounty on predators was prohibited.

“It was animal rights people who turned him in,” said Eulalie Langford, a former state legislator from Montpelier who took up the fight on behalf of the rancher, whose name was not released by the FAA. “Baby lambs have rights too, and I told our officials that people might be getting a lot of sport and recreation out of shooting these coyotes that were eating their lambs.”

In April 2003, the state formally asked for a waiver to allow the use of powered parachutes in airborne predator control.

“As technology has improved, it has become apparent that powered parachutes are an ideal vehicle for airborne predator control,” wrote Stanley Boyd, a lobbyist for woolgrowers, elk breeders and cattle ranchers who heads the Idaho Animal Damage Control Board.

The application was denied, prompting Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation to write an appeal to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.

“It is important to note that these activities occur in the vast open spaces of rural Idaho and pose no real threat to human safety,” Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, along with Reps. Mike Simpson and C.L. “Butch” Otter wrote in the September 2004 letter.

After several months of investigation and negotiation, Blakey responded, writing that FAA “does not want to unduly restrict these activities, but only wants to ensure they are conducted safely and in appropriately certificated aircraft.”

The solution came with the creation of the new light sport aircraft category and new sport pilot certificate issued by FAA. Under the new rule, lighter-than-air balloons, gliders, airships, flying trikes, gyroplanes, powered parachutes and other ultralights that meet certain weight, speed and capacity standards can be certified and receive a tail number just like a full-size private airplane. The test required for a light sport aircraft pilot’s certificate is not as extensive as a traditional pilot’s license.

“Now, ranchers can take eight hours of instruction, pay a small certification fee and then just take a felt pen to write your ‘N’ number on the side of your craft and bingo, you’re legal,” Boyd said in an interview. “We didn’t issue any permits for ultralights this past year, but ranchers are just learning this is available to them.”

Keefover-Ring, who tracks aerial gunning accidents for the conservation group Sinapu, said although she has never seen a report of an ultralight crashing while aerial gunning, her group has records dating back to 1989 of 24 crashes of standard airplanes or helicopters during airborne predator flights that killed 32 people.

“There is so little margin for error when you are flying 10 feet off the ground shooting a gun at a moving target,” she said.

But Langford maintains the ultralights are safer than standard airplanes for picking off coyotes, foxes and other livestock predators.

“Airplanes, even small planes, can travel over 100 miles an hour, while these aerial ATVs move along about the speed that a coyote can run,” she said. “If there’s a mountain coming up, you have plenty of time to see it and take evasive action.”

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