When dove hunting season began on a recent fall weekend in central Virginia, hunters accidentally bagged more than birds.

As they aimed at doves perched side-by-side on power lines, they shot up the fiber optic cable that Firefly Fiber Broadband—a wholly-owned subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative—uses to bring high-speed internet service to rural communities.

When birdshot struck the glass fibers, they shattered, causing thousands of dollars of damage and stripping some local residents of the ability to use their cellphones and laptops until the fiber was repaired. The fiber lines typically run just below the power lines.

“Most of these hunters are not used to having fiber in rural areas,” said Gary Wood, president and CEO of Palmyra-based CVEC and Firefly. “It can look like just a smaller wire, but it’s very different from the power lines. Hunters are surprised how susceptible it is to damage.”

It’s also not very sporting to shoot birds lined up on a power line, Wood said.

“Bird hunting generally is thought of as the sport of shooting a bird in flight,” he said. “We encourage hunters to use their skills to do that.”

While birdshot may bounce off metal power lines, the glass fibers shatter upon impact, Wood said. Although the glass fibers are encased in a hard plastic jacket, the plastic can also be pierced by birdshot.

It is incredibly expensive to repair, Wood said. An average 12-fiber or 24-fiber cable costs about $1,000 to $2,500 to splice back together while a cable with large bundles of fiber can cost as much as $20,000 to fix.

For now, the money for repairs is coming from the co-op’s maintenance budget while it works to educate members and broadband customers not to shoot at birds on power lines, which is a federal crime. CVEC is reaching out to its 39,000 members through bill inserts and to the broader community through a social media campaign and coverage from local print and broadcast media.

“We have made the decision not to send a bill to the landowner for the first incident if our fiber optic cables are damaged on their property,” Wood said. “It’s still new to them and we’re trying to be very patient. We want to make sure they understand. Once we’ve had a chance to educate people, probably in one or two years, we’ll start charging them.”

Although Firefly Fiber Broadband has been around since August 2018, the dove hunting problem has become worse as the company’s subscribers have grown beyond the co-op’s members and into the wider community, Wood said. The broadband subsidiary has about 25,000 customers.

“The number of incidents has gone up significantly in the last two years,” he said. “We’re really trying to raise the profile across the entire area, reminding our members—but also reaching out to communities surrounding us—that it’s illegal and very expensive to fix.”

Other electric co-ops have contacted CVEC to see if they can use some of its social media messaging to educate hunters in their communities, Wood said.

“We’re learning the lessons early on and we’re willing to share what we’ve learned with everyone,” he said.

CVEC and Firefly got some good news when the second weekend of dove hunting season rolled around in mid-November.

“We had no reports of damage at all,” Wood said. “The word is getting out.”