15th Engineer Battalion's work builds home for animals
A coupled pair of common frogs watches over their spawning eggs in a pond in USAG Schweinfurt's Pfaendhausen training area. The animals, currently on Germany's watch list for vulnerable species, hatch in ponds created by the 15th Engineer Battalion before moving into the training area's woodlands to live their adult lives.

SCHWEINFURT, Germany -- The Pfaendhausen training area here plays occasional host to Soldiers from both this garrison and visiting units, who utilize the unique facilities and terrain. But there is one group of residents that finds the environment in Schweinfurt particularly appealing: the amphibians that make their home in the pristine woodlands and bodies of water within the training area.

Lothar Rueckert, the garrison's environmental specialist, says that contrary to what many would think, the military training in the 6,200 acre zone-nicknamed Area Mike-actually benefits the wildlife there.

"Old tank tracks get filled in with water," said Rueckert. "Then the frogs, toads and newts can make a home."

Area Mike, of which almost 90 percent is forested, is spotted with deep ruts carved out by the military vehicles that have used the dirt roads over the decades. The ruts have now become elongated shallow ponds and lush habitats in which the amphibians can lay eggs.

In 2009, the 15th Engineer Battalion improved upon these "accidental habitats" by creating a series of deeper bodies of water to compensate for habitat lost through road-building in Pfaendhausen.

Kathrin Poptcheva, an environmental specialist who monitors the wildlife in Area Mike, said that the animals went through an adjustment period with these ponds.

"Toads and frogs come back to spawn in the same pond where they were born," said Poptcheva. "But we moved some of these original ponds when we built roads."

In many cases, the 15th Engineer's creations were deeper and better-protected than the original ponds. Poptcheva said the animals quickly grew to prefer the newly constructed habitats.

"The newts, frogs and toads realized that the compensation pond was the best habitat," she said. "The deeper water is better for the hot summer days when some of the shallower ponds dry out." And because the small ponds are new and unconnected to bigger lakes by streams, they remain free of fish, which are natural predators of the small amphibians.

And the training was more than just an act of charity for the battalion. These dig exercises mirror combat drills in which Soldiers burrow trenches for tanks to drive down into and fire from. In fact, many of these former "fighting position ponds" exist around the training area, gradually filled in by vegetation over the years. The newly-minted ponds are the most viable habitats because they are still clear and deep.

The common frog is currently listed on the German "Red List" of vulnerable species. The frog is not endangered but faces the risk of extinction. The yellow-bellied toad, which spawns by the hundreds in Area Mike later in the year, is classified as endangered in the state of Bavaria, said Rueckert

In Germany, frogs are threatened by road-building, loss of aquatic habitat through over-development ,and by getting trapped in concrete buildings. These problems are almost nonexistent in the wild, untamed forests of Pfaendhausen.

Poptcheva and Rueckert started a methodical survey of the area in mid-March, searching the countless ponds in Area Mike under threatening gray skies and buffeted by a chill wind. The toads and newts do not spawn until the weather warms, but the common frog had already started to lay eggs in several of the ponds.

Only a few of the ponds contained the orb-like clusters of frog eggs, but Poptcheva was not daunted, maintaining confidence that the newly created habitats are proving successful in bolstering Pfaendhausen's animal population.

"There could be more frogs here, there could be more toads," she said. "But that's OK. There could also be none of them."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16