- More than 500 threatened and endangered species call military installations around the country home; 60 of them live only on land managed by the Ministry of Defence.
- Protected from public access and private development, military installations are home to some of the largest and most pristine tracts of native habitat in the United States.
- The Sikes Act of 1960 requires the army to preserve and enhance the natural resources it manages, while maintaining the conditions necessary for training soldiers in combat.
Each February at Marine Base Hawaii, the 3rd Marine Combat Assault Company embarks on a training exercise known as mud operations, maneuvering a fleet of amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) around a 482-acre wetland on the base’s southeastern edge. For three days, the AAVs scoured the sodden landscape, their tire tracks leaving behind a patchwork of mud and flattened foliage.
But the enemy during this combat exercise is not an alien army, it’s an invasive species called pickleweed. If left unmanaged, pickleweed would quickly dominate these wetlands, which happen to be an important breeding ground for Hawaiian stilts, a long-legged shorebird and one of 11 endangered species that inhabit this basis. During Mud Ops, new Marines receive essential training to use AAVs in a realistic environment; stilts get the wide-open mudflats they need to nest.
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This exercise may seem unconventional, but efforts like this take place at virtually every military installation across the country. Because public access and private development are prohibited on military bases, today there are more endangered species living on acres managed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) than there are. a in the national parks of the country. More than 500 threatened and endangered species live in military installations, and about 60 of these species, such as the Saint Francis satyr, a small butterfly and resident of Fort Bragg in North Carolina, are only found on military grounds.
In 1960, Congress passed sikes law, which requires the DOD to protect or enhance the nearly 30 million acres of natural resources it manages, while allowing troops to train in a wide range of the most realistic conditions possible. At first sight, these two objectives may seem opposed; after all, heavy artillery and fragile ecosystems don’t seem like an ideal mix. But across the country, military personnel are demonstrating that war and wildlife can coexist in surprising ways.
Bats on an Air Force bombing range
“Even though I’m working on a bombing area, it’s probably one of the most pristine habitats you’ll find anywhere,” says Charles “Buck” MacLaughlin, a former Air Force fighter pilot. who is now director of operations at Avon Park Air Force. Range, a 107,000 acre facility two hours south of Orlando, Florida.
Without a unit of its own, MacLaughlin recounts Popular mechanics that the base hosts members of all branches of the military, who come to drop Hellfire missiles, fire howitzers and conduct explosives training. The base also hosts 12 endangered speciesincluding the grasshopper sparrow, most endangered bird in North America, and the Florida Bonneted bat, North America’s most endangered bat.
This is possible because only about 20,000 acres of the range are “impact zones,” MacLaughlin says; the rest is set aside as security buffer, untouched brush, and grassland habitat that are increasingly hard to find in Florida. Additionally, the range partners with conservation agencies on projects to protect endangered species among them. Avon Park is now one of the release sites of a captive breeding grasshopper sparrow program and partners with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) monitor bats and their roostsso that training drills can be planned around them.
“If we don’t take care of the land entrusted to us, we will lose the ability to use that land,” MacLaughlin says, referring to Sikes’ law.
A raft of wild animals on a naval island
Operated by Naval Station Coronado, San Clemente Island sits in the Pacific Ocean approximately 70 miles west of San Diego, making it the perfect location for the only training range at the naval ship-to-shore bombardment, as well as 300 unique species of plants and animals. Before the Navy acquired the 57 square mile strip of land in 1932, San Clemente was home to ranchers who introduced a host of invasive and destructive species to the island’s ecosystem. Goats, pigs and rabbits have spent decades eating native plants and ruining topsoil.
From the mid-1990s, the Navy has joined with the National Park Service to remove invasive species from the island. Since then, the island’s 20 endemic species threatened with state and federal extinction have rebounded, including the island’s nocturnal lizard, which was delisted in 2014 after a tally of the population found more than 21 million crawling around the base, the highest density. lizard anywhere on Earth.
Other efforts to remove invasive plants and restore native flora have resulted in the Cancellation 2021 of four previously endangered plant species – the paintbrush, lotus, larkspur and San Clemente Island mallow – as well as the San Clemente Island sparrow, a bird that thrives in these native grasses and whose population once numbered only dozens.
Tiny Songbirds in a Massive Army Installation
At Fort Hood in central Texas, where the Army forms not one, but two armored divisions, an epic battle has been going on for decades between two birds on the installation’s 215,000 acres before biologists don’t notice it. Brown-headed cowbirds laid their eggs in the nests of black-headed vireos, burdening the much smaller songbird with parental duties. Typically, the cowbird egg hatched first, and the larger chick would outcompete the smaller vireo chicks for food – or simply push them out of the nest. By the late 1980s, fewer than 350 vireos remained, 200 of them at the base. In 1987, the bird was added to the list of endangered species.
“It became clear that we needed to reduce cowbird parasitism,” said David Cimprich, a conservation biologist who works at Fort Hood. Popular mechanics. Over the next two decades, Army personnel teamed up with the USFWS to trap and exterminate cowbirds, while vireo chick mortality dropped from 90% to 10%. In 2019, there were 8,000 male Black-headed Vireos at Fort Hood alone, and the bird was written off.
With the cowbirds managed, the vireos have thrived because the habitat they prefer – forest edges and open grasslands – are two ecosystems the soldiers at the installation need for realistic training scenarios like exercises. combat and armored vehicle exercises. Periodically, Fort Hood land managers use controlled burns to rejuvenate the landscape. This, according to Cimprich, “is exactly what we would be doing if we were managing the habitat of the vireos.”
Monk seals on a marine base
Back at Marine Base Hawaii, home of Mud Ops, the installation’s environmental division celebrated another conservation milestone last year. In June 2021, Hawaiian celebrity monk seal Lōliʻi transferred to the facility to protect her from the well-meaning but dangerous mobs on Waikiki Beach, where she was born. There are only around 1,400 monk seals left in the wild, and Lōliʻi now enjoys its own private beach – and a safety detail no one is going to mess with.
The US Coast Guard, Stewards of Sea Creatures
Although not an agency of the DOD, and therefore not bound by Sikes Act, the US Coast Guard has its own Environmental protection program through which he responds to oil spills, saves trapped or weakened animals, and inspects maritime vessels for invasive species.
The Coast Guard also plays a role in monk seal conservationoften transporting diseased seals for treatment or rehabilitated seals for release.