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Biologist fights wildlife in war zone

Feb. 6, 2013 - 03:24PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 6, 2013 - 03:24PM  |  
Keel Price, a USDA wildlife biologist, surveys the area for birds and other creatures that may cause damage to aircraft at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan.
Keel Price, a USDA wildlife biologist, surveys the area for birds and other creatures that may cause damage to aircraft at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan After a painstaking examination of the truck tires for rocks and pebbles and bits of dirt for anything that might endanger the aircraft he has traveled halfway around the world to protect Keel Price pockets the Leatherman he uses for the check, climbs into the cab and eases onto the flight line.

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan After a painstaking examination of the truck tires for rocks and pebbles and bits of dirt for anything that might endanger the aircraft he has traveled halfway around the world to protect Keel Price pockets the Leatherman he uses for the check, climbs into the cab and eases onto the flight line.

He rolls down the windows despite the punch of freezing air.

"The little drones are harder than hell to see," Price says. He listens and watches and creeps toward a place on his map called Point Transect 9, where for three minutes he will stand in the morning light and count birds invisible to eyes less keen than his. Price, a dairy farmer-turned-wildlife biologist, has spent a lifetime trapping and hunting in the wilderness. He spots seven common mynas winging west and scribbles the number on a metal clipboard.

Price will repeat the process eight times at various points on the flight line. More than once, he will pull off the tarmac to make way for a sleek jet or a silvery drone. When he is back in his office, Price will input the results of his weekly survey into a database, which over time will reveal patterns in wildlife movement here. That information may help reduce bird strikes and ultimately save aircraft and lives.

That is why Price volunteered to leave his home in Las Cruces, N.M., to spend four months in a war zone.

"Who in the hell else gets to serve their country again at age 62?"

Stetson and shotgun

Price begins most days at dawn, when the light in this monochrome desert leaves the low-slung mountains beyond the base perimeter pink-tinged. He wears a Stetson and carries a shotgun. An American flag is stitched into the ID badge around his neck.

Price checks traps he sets for wildlife: jackals, jungle cats and the much-larger, old-world porcupines.

He hunts for birds and for small rodents that attract birds: rats, mice, voles and jirds. He kills what he traps, a job best done while most of the 30,000 people on this airfield are sleeping. Price doesn't want anyone to happen upon a live animal in a trap. And he doesn't like to do what he calls dispatching in front of an audience.

"Unfortunately, everybody thinks they're an expert in wildlife," Price says. "My philosophy is that an active airfield should be a sterile environment safe for pilots and crew. There's the strike threat. But rabies is through the roof here."

When a bird does collide with an aircraft, Price collects the remains and sends it to the Smithsonian Institution's bird ID lab.

If biologists know what kind of bird they're dealing with, they may be able to understand why it's near the airfield, said Mike Begier, national coordinator for the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program. Then they can begin to make the habitat less attractive knocking down brush, cleaning up ditches, keeping grass low.

The Department of Agriculture first asked for volunteers to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 after a number of significant bird strikes, including one involving an F-16 at Bagram Airfield in 2007, Begier said.

Wildlife specialists have worked for decades with the Defense Department and assist dozens of military bases each year.

"This is the first time we can remember for quite a while where we were called into a theater of conflict," Begier said, and some wondered whether anyone would want to go.

Eighteen wildlife biologists have now served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where wildlife strikes at airbases have fallen 65 percent in the last three years, saving an estimated $2.6 million in potential repair costs.

Two have volunteered to go twice. Price is one of them.

To serve ‘an honor and privilege'

Price grew up a patriot in Indiana. "We said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. We deeply respected our veterans," he says.

By the time he graduated high school, the U.S. had entered the Vietnam War. "Nobody wanted to be there. Everybody was drafted."

The difference was startling. Price enlisted in the Army Reserve, where he spent six years serving stateside at the height of the unpopular war.

When he heard about the program that would allow him to serve his country nearly four decades later, there was no question.

Price's son is a former soldier who served two one-year tours in Iraq. For years, the pair has taken part in the 26.2 mile Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico, walking in memory of a soldier they never met, 22-year-old">Jesse Zamora, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

"To serve with a professional, all-volunteer force is an honor and a privilege," Price says.

In late 2009, he became the first wildlife biologist at Bagram Airfield. His wife of 44 years wasn't happy about it. Lots of well-intentioned people told him to be careful. "I told them, ‘It's not like I can die young.'" At Bagram, Price slept three or four hours a night. It was all he needed. He made his office in a tower built during the Soviet occupation but spent most of his time in the field or in a room inside a dilapidated hardened aircraft shelter at the end of the runway. He rehung the doors, cleaned it up and added a layer of paint.

He enjoyed nearly complete privacy to perform necropsies, skin and tan wildlife and work on his traps albeit to the constant roar of departing planes.

"For all intents and purposes, I was 12 years old again," he recalls. "I had traps. I had guns. I could do whatever I wanted. I even had a hut. Life was good."

‘Flying yard dart'

Kandahar will be Price's last tour. He is three years older now, tired, and on this frigid January morning, he is battling a lingering cold.

There are enough rocket attacks to remind Price he's in a war zone. He was nearby when a car bomb exploded at an entry control point on base in December. But he doesn't feel threatened. As he stands in the cutting wind counting mynas, rock doves and common pigeons, Price considers the rugged beauty of the desert.

"It's a lot like home," he says. To the west, the sky is startlingly blue above the mountains. The moon is no more than an imprint in the glare of the morning sun.

But there are aerostats floating on the horizon, and a gray haze has already swallowed up the sky to the east. There are brown buildings and barbed wire and the incessant thump of helicopters overhead. And, to Price's daily dismay, deep ditches at the departure end of the runway filled with concrete slabs, rusted metal, twisted wire a promised land for grub, mice and buzzards.

"Look at this damn debris. It's nothing but wildlife habitat," Price says. "Buzzards are very large birds. They don't just fly. They float. The departure end is critical. Planes are full of fuel. Some have munitions. There's nowhere to land. If you hit a large object or suck up a crane or one of these buzzards, you're a flying yard dart."

Before the weather turned cold, Price was here several times a day, hazing and dispatching birds. But that won't be necessary for much longer. When he got here, he read reports and surveys from his predecessors and decided he would make just one recommendation to the base commander: Clear and clean these ditches. Make it undesirable for wildlife. Repair the fence to keep mammals from crawling through.

"It beats the hell out of having to kill them," he says.

Price got the approval he sought. By the time the birds return in mass numbers, his mission will be accomplished.

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