July 16, 2006

Wildlife shares NASA launch site

By Deborah Zabarenko

CAPE CANAVERAL (Reuters) - Alligators, manatees and
vultures share Kennedy Space Center with space shuttle
Discovery, so for more than 40 years NASA has had to adjust to
launching rockets in the middle of a national wildlife refuge.

NASA has redesigned its boats to protect manatees, painted
gravel to fend off terns and shielded sea turtles from launch
pad lights. Most recently, it has tackled vultures with the
Roadkill Roundup.

This effort to remove animal carcasses from local roads was
prompted by the vultures that often circle the launch pad where
Discovery, which is due to return to earth on Monday, lifted
off on July 4.

As big as turkeys, these buzzards can get within flapping
distance of space vessels, and Discovery actually hit one on
its way into orbit last year.

The collision did no apparent damage to the shuttle but
prompted NASA to adopt a plan that includes making loud noises
to shoo vultures and other birds away from the rockets. The
Roadkill Roundup is a longer-term strategy to get to the root
of the vulture problem.

A group including aerospace contractors, the U.S. Fish &
Wildlife Service and a veterinary pathologist from Disney's
Animal Kingdom came up with the plan to cut down on the
vultures' food source by carting away dead animals.

Basically, people who come to Kennedy Space Center and the
neighboring Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge are
encouraged to report the location of carcasses that might look
appetizing to the area's vultures.

In the three months since the program started, more than
100 animals have been removed, including raccoons, possums,
armadillos, hogs, turtles, otters and a few alligators,
according to NASA.


The Roadkill Roundup has another purpose, said Dorn
Whitmore, a ranger at the Merritt Island refuge, which
virtually encompasses the space complex.

"We've tried to GPS (global positioning system) all those
locations where the roadkills are," Dorn said in an interview
at his office at the refuge, which is decorated with a stuffed
redfish and the head of a feral hog. "We're going to establish
some wildlife crossing areas where we find that pattern, and
target some signs to slow vehicles down."

The refuge was set up in 1963, a year after the space
center was established, and covers a 35-mile-long (56-km) swath
of territory that attracts more than 500 species to the area,
Whitmore said.

NASA owns the refuge and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
manages it. The agencies work together to smooth contact
between the natural and aeronautical worlds -- and sometimes
that means changing NASA policy, the ranger said.

-- When the lights of NASA's launch complexes disturbed
federally protected sea turtles nesting on nearby beaches at
night, NASA agreed to shield the lights.

-- NASA boats that retrieve the shuttle's solid rocket
boosters after launches re-enter the space complex at a point
with a high concentration of manatees, and the boats'
propellers threatened to harm the aquatic mammals. The vessels
were redesigned so the propellers could be turned off.

-- The space center's runway proved tempting to a
threatened species of bird, the least tern, which is used to
nesting on pale sand beaches but opted instead for the
beach-colored gravel at the ends of the runway. The gravel was
painted black to discourage the terns from returning.

Alligators are plentiful around the space center but tend
to shun humans. However, those alligators that have lost their
fear of people are destroyed by local hunters called in for
this purpose, Whitmore said.

With Daytona Beach to the north, Cocoa Beach to the south
and the growing suburbs of Orlando to the west, the space
center is a kind of oasis for nature, Whitmore said.

"More and more, we're becoming an island in a sea of urban
development," he said. "Had NASA not come along and
inadvertently preserved the area for wildlife, we would not
have it today."