November 17, 2006
Sioux Falls, South Dakota - An airplane with Attorney General Larry Long on board struck a coyote while landing in Watertown.
"We were on the ground and whacked him," Long said. "You could feel the thump, and some folks said they'd heard it. It was pretty obvious something had happened."
Officials weren't ready to call the incident Tuesday night a first for South Dakota, but it is rare. The state has 75,000 coyotes, by one estimate, and they have never been more numerous. But they're secretive, solitary and usually too smart to get in the way of airplanes.
"They're generally pretty wary. If there's a noise, they'll certainly run away," said Ben Chambers, a Game, Fish and Parks conservation officer in Watertown.
The flight, Mesaba 3183, was a Saab prop-jet with 22 passengers going from Minneapolis to Watertown. "The crew landed the aircraft safely, and there never was any danger to passengers or crew," said Elizabeth Costello, director of communications for Mesaba in Minneapolis.
The animal died hitting landing gear at the nose of the plane but not before damaging a taxi light and idling the plane overnight until a mechanic could arrive.
Long was returning from a meeting in Florida of Republican attorneys general. After the collision, "the pilot turned us around so we could look at it," he said. "He initially pronounced it a fox. He walked back later and said it was a coyote." Long and 16 others had planned to go on to Pierre but spent the night in Watertown.
Art Smith, administrator for the wildlife damage program for GF&P, said, "We've had multiple deer strikes each year with aircraft. The coyote, quite frankly, that's a rarer species."
Coyotes are growing more acclimated to city life and turn up in places such as New York's Central Park, said Smith, who will speak on "the urban coyote" in April at a conference in Texas.
Controlling the population is never smooth. Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City had a problem with deer and coyotes a few years ago, Smith said.
"They put up a fence, and the rabbit population became huge, so the hawks came in," he said.
Hawks, like geese, are a midflight risk to jet engines, "so they cut down the trees where the hawks were nesting," Smith said. "Hence, the humans had to go in and remove the rabbits. That will probably be an ongoing project."
Officials at the Watertown airport could not be reached Thursday. Smith said airports such as Watertown's are fenced for security. That keeps deer away, but coyotes are ingenious in getting under fences if food is on the other side. "At Watertown, if there's nothing in there to take care of small animals, those are very attractive to coyotes," Smith said.
Reach reporter Jon Walker at 331-2206 or 800-530-6397.