Vulture killings a last resort

Dead birds used to shoo hundreds

Three vultures were shot Monday and hung on structures at Bull Shoals Dam in an effort to shoo away hundreds of vultures that have started staying there year round.

Laurie Driver, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said it was the "last resort." Workers have tried pyrotechnics and hanging plastic effigies of dead vultures. But neither had much effect on this core group of desensitized birds.

"We don't get any pleasure out of doing this at all," Driver said. "Vultures serve a very important purpose. But we'd like for them to carry out that purpose away from our dam and powerhouse."

Driver said the dead birds were placed where the public can't see them.

The Corps got a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take as many as 125 black vultures and 10 turkey vultures. But they're hoping three will be enough. Both types of vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

An Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officer used a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with steel shot to shoot three vultures Monday, said Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the commission.

Driver said they'll wait a few days to see how the venue of vultures reacts to the three dead birds before shooting any more.

Carmen Simonton, chief of the migratory bird permit office at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta, said vultures are scavengers, but they have an aversion to the dead of their own species.

"If you can shoot a few vultures and hang them up, that usually moves them out of the area," she said.

While some vultures have always been around Bull Shoals Lake, they became a problem in October 2012, when about 1,500 vultures descended on the dam, said Bruce W. Caldwell, supervisory natural resource biologist for the Corps in Mountain Home.

In June 2013, pyrotechnic noise-making devices were used, and about 1,000 vultures left the area, Caldwell said a month later.

But some of the vultures apparently got used to the fireworks and ignored them. Other methods -- such as chemical repellents and a propane cannon -- were also tried without much effect.

Caldwell said the vultures are normally gone by summer, but now about 300 remain.

Most of them are around Bull Shoals Dam, while some are at the dam on Norfork Lake, about 25 miles to the southeast.

The birds roost on the dam. Their caustic droppings damage metal and painted surfaces, and discolor the concrete. Workers spent 120 hours last year cleaning vulture droppings from metal and concrete structures, Driver said.

Bull Shoals Dam is on the White River about 12 miles west of Mountain Home. The dam is on the border between Baxter and Marion counties.

Simonton said vultures like to roost on the highest object around. Bull Shoals Dam is 256 feet tall and 2,256 feet long.

Construction on Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. President Harry S. Truman spoke at the dam's dedication on July 2, 1952, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. At the time, Bull Shoals was the fifth-largest dam in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in Arkansas.

The migratory black vultures are more aggressive than the red-headed turkey vultures that are usually around the dam, Caldwell said.

The black vultures rip away at anything resembling rubber, including windshield wipers, car door insulation and even the rubber expansion joints separating sections of cement sidewalk.

Driver said the vultures have caused about $5,000 worth of damage to vehicles at each dam, Bull Shoals and Norfork.

Driver said vultures also damaged the roofs of the powerhouses at both dams. Partially because of vulture damage, the roofs had to be replaced years earlier than expected, she said.

The cost to replace the roof at the Bull Shoals Dam powerhouse was $2 million, while the cost at Norfork was $875,000. They were replaced with a less-pliant, hopefully vulture-resistant material.

Simonton said she started getting complaint calls about vultures about a decade ago.

"In almost every state in the southeast, we have permits issued to take vultures," Simonton said. "And in the northeast, especially Virginia. Most of them are for homeowners and situations like you're talking here."

Driver said the Corps got a permit in 2013 that would allow them to shoot some of the birds.

The permit was renewed in 2014 and 2015, but it hasn't been used until this year. That's because the Corps was trying to use other methods to move the vultures out of the area, Driver said.

The Corps worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Inspection Service to develop several long-term methods to discourage the birds from roosting on the dam and power plant but had only marginal success, Driver said.

The Corps plans to continue using bird spikes, propane cannons, tactile repellents, plastic dead-vulture effigies and pyrotechnics to discourage the birds, she said.

Metro on 06/23/2015