Wood River Valley residents and visitors are accustomed to plane flights to Friedman Memorial Airport being diverted due to bad weather, but passengers arriving from Salt Lake City on Saturday night experienced a first—the pilot of their Delta jet had to abort landing on the initial approach due to a mountain lion on the runway.
Hailey resident Diane Cordes was on the 8:15 p.m. flight expecting a routine landing as the plane skimmed over the southern end of the valley at about 9:15 p.m.
“The weather was clear so we were all happy,” Cordes said. “We were on an approach for landing and all of a sudden the pilot pulled up. After a couple of minutes, he came on the loudspeaker and said the tower called and we had to pull up because there’s a cougar on the runway.”
Cordes said the plane did one big loop, lasting about 20 minutes, and the pilot came back on and said the tower had approved a landing because airport personnel had been able to chase the lion outside the airport fence.
She said the plane landed at about 9:45 p.m., about 20 minutes late.
Cordes said the passenger sitting next to her was a man from Virginia making his first visit to the area.
“Does this happen all the time?” she said he asked her.
Cordes said she told him that mountain lion sightings are common, but she had never known of one on the airport runway.
Airport Manager Chris Pomeroy said the cougar was first reported by Atlantic Aviation, which serves private planes, at the southern end of the airport. He said observations Sunday of tracks on the outside of the perimeter fence, which surrounds the airport, indicated that the animal had been roaming around the fence for a couple of days. Pomeroy said the lion apparently saw something interesting inside the airfield and climbed on a wheel line irrigation device to jump over the fence.
Pomeroy said the airport has a wildlife management plan in place, and airport personnel went out to try to corral the cougar.
“We thought we had it contained but it did spring loose and walk across the runway when the Delta flight was several miles out,” he said.
Pomeroy said he used an airport car to chase the lion into a fenced-off area surrounding the air traffic control tower. He said he had contacted the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and a conservation officer was on the scene when the lion was trapped within the fence.
Fish and Game spokesman Kelton Hatch said the officer shot the lion to protect public safety, including the safety of the people exiting the plane.
“There was no way to get ahold of it and trap it in a timely manner,” Hatch said. “If we had let it out of the gate, it would have run out onto Highway 75.”
Mike McDonald, the department’s regional wildlife manager, said the conservation officer on the scene did not have access to a tranquilizer dart gun.
“Those folks [who do have them] are pretty highly trained to administer drugs for wildlife restraint purposes,” he said. “Currently, we are a little understaffed in that area.”
In any case, he said, the department does not normally relocate large predators such as mountain lions or bears that have become accustomed to being near humans.
“The risk isn’t worth the reward,” he said.
Hatch said the lion was a juvenile, less than a year old.
“They’re typically the ones that get into trouble,” he said. “They don’t have the full skill set that an adult animal does.”
The lion was the second one recently killed in the area. On Dec. 31, a lion was trapped and killed by personnel from the federal Wildlife Services after it apparently killed a goat and critically injured another one on private property along Broadford Road south of Hailey.
Pomeroy said animals occasionally get into the airport, but this was the first time he knows of that a cougar has done so. He said deer got in a couple of times last winter when the snow was so deep that they could jump over the fence.