Gators, Manatees, Vultures Share NASA Launch Site

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.

CAPE CANAVERAL — 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 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."

Source: Reuters

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