By Melody Everly, Staff WriterApril 24, 2014
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- One of the biggest land management challenges that any military installation faces is conserving and protecting natural resources in areas that are also used to provide training and testing. In the U.S., military lands include more than 30 million acres -- lands that are home to diverse habitats and native species.
Originally enacted in 1960, the Sikes Act recognizes the value of military lands and resources and provides guidelines that ensure these ecosystems are protected and enhanced while still allowing the use of these lands for military operations.
It is a delicate balance, but one that Fort Drum Fish and Wildlife Management Program Manager Ray Rainbolt and his team are wholly dedicated to maintaining.
Within the team of seven biologists, each individual has an area of expertise.
Rainbolt serves as overall program manager for the team; Chris Dobony is responsible for endangered species management; Jeff Bolsinger's primary focus is migratory birds; Fred Ossman is responsible for overseeing reptiles, amphibians and insects; Miranda Monica specializes in game animals, beaver management and outdoor recreation; Laura Cowger is the team's aquatic biologist; and Chris Whitman is a fish and wildlife technician / intern.
"We spread it out to cover everything," Rainbolt said. "Everyone is a subject-matter expert in their area, and yet we are all there to help each other with projects and major undertakings."
Their diligent efforts were recognized recently, when the team was named recipient of the 2014 National Military Fish and Wildlife Association Award for Model Programs and Projects in Support of the Natural Resources on DOD Lands.
"I received a phone call from one of my counterparts who works for Pennsylvania National Guard at Fort Indiantown Gap that we had received the award. I hadn't realized we had even been nominated," Rainbolt said.
Dave McNaughton, assistant wildlife program manager at Indiantown Gap National Guard Training Center, had collaborated with Rainbolt and his team in the past and recommended them for the award.
"I nominated the Fort Drum team because they have been a model in many respects for many of us at other installations," McNaughton said. "I work at Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard Training Center in Pennsylvania, which used to be a sub-installation when we were in the federal system, so we have some installation activities and objectives in common. We share information, ideas and techniques quite often.
Rainbolt said that the strength of the Fish and Wildlife Management Program is, in part, due to their commitment to the Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan that they, as a team, developed.
"Our INRMP is one that we created based on the DOD template -- really just an outline -- of how they should be written," Rainbolt said. "I worked with personnel from the Navy and Air Force as well as the Army to flesh out what it should look like."
Rainbolt and his team are currently using their second draft INRMP -- a document that contains plans for managing the major animal, reptile and amphibian species found on Fort Drum. Part of the document is dedicated to the 240-plus species of migratory birds that live on post.
The complexity and thoroughness of Fort Drum's INRMP have led several other installations across the country to use it as a framework for writing their own plans.
"The Fort Drum Fish and Wildlife team are progressive and setting important paths for their program that the rest of us are working to model," McNaughton said.
Among the accomplishments cited by the NMFWA, Fort Drum's Fish and Management Program was recognized for its extensive work in the area of rare species management.
"Most of the time, our approach is a 'no management approach,'" Rainbolt said. "We observe and monitor the species that reside on Fort Drum and don't intervene unless absolutely necessary."
One consistent need for intervention is the relocation of Canada geese from populated areas of post to more remote locations.
"We go out every spring and look for Canada goose nests, because we try to keep them away from specific areas of post -- the park, the beach, the playgrounds -- because they make a big mess," Rainbolt said. "We also have to make sure that they are not too close to the airfield, because we don't want them to be a hazard to the pilots."
Rainbolt said that some of his team's most ground-breaking work in the area of species management was done in regard to their research and conservation efforts on behalf of the Indiana bat species.
"White Nose Syndrome is a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats across the eastern U.S. and Canada," he said. "It was first detected in Schoharie County around 2006-2007."
In 2007, the team conducted an intensive installationwide bat survey. The research they recorded during this study gave the biologists a baseline of bat populations before White Nose Syndrome and allowed them to continue to study the population as it declined due to this disease.
It also allowed the team to test out various measures that might help to preserve the bat species. Among their efforts, light minimization procedures have proven to be very helpful.
"We are trying to reduce the amount of light that shows into the wooded areas and potentially makes it easier for owls and other animals to catch and kill bats," Rainbolt said.
"It also never hurts to reduce the light pollution that surrounds Fort Drum … and it doesn't hurt to reduce the amount of electricity used."
The dwindling bat population meant that Rainbolt and his team needed to investigate the population in a different manner.
"Because of the low number of bats, we have been leading efforts to more efficiently survey using acoustical surveys rather than (more hands-on) mist net surveys," Rainbolt said. "We recently completed a graduate study on this with Virginia Technical Institute. Not only does Fort Drum benefit from this work, but we are contributing to the greater knowledge of the disease as it continues to expand westward."
The team also was recognized for their innovative methods of providing additional ease of access to disabled individuals wishing to use hunting areas on post. As small game specialist, Miranda Monica headed up these efforts.
"I began (by) looking for areas that would be easily navigated by a four-wheeler or personal vehicle," Monica said. "I did get feedback from one person who used the sites regularly -- he loved the spot he chose and was encouraged by all the wildlife he saw."
Some of the team's most recent work involves an in-depth study of one migratory bird species -- the red-headed woodpecker. Rainbolt and his team recently completed a research study on the species in conjunction with graduate students from the University of West Virginia.
"We looked at 25 different habitat variables and measured where red-headed woodpeckers were nesting," he said. "We ran an analysis to determine which variables were most important -- what made the woodpeckers choose one area over another. We took that information, and we are going to work with our Forest Management Team to create a habitat that is consistent with our findings."
The team is also in the early stages of planning a small mammal study.
"Lyme disease is an emerging issue throughout the Northeast," Rainbolt said. "We are trying to figure out if there is any way to manage the disease. We can only do this by managing the small mammals that bring the ticks closer to humans."
Rainbolt hopes that the small mammal research conducted on Fort Drum may yield solutions that can be applied not just on post, but throughout the nation.
Jason Wagner, Fort Drum Natural Resources Branch chief, said the research and findings of the Fish and Wildlife Management team have had a profound impact that reaches much farther than the confines of the installation's training lands.
"They are big-picture thinkers who don't just see Fort Drum as a self-contained unit," Wagner said. "They embrace the regional context, from managing a top-notch recreation program that sportsmen from all over the Northeast enjoy, to working with local universities and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to manage habitats and species of concern in the area."
Wagner said he was not surprised to learn that the Fish and Wildlife Management Branch had won this prestigious award. He said that he feels privileged to work with such a dedicated team every day.
"The work this team does is critical to the long-term sustainability of our training lands," Wagner said. "Knowledgeable, proactive management of our habitats today -- to ensure species on Fort Drum do not become threatened or endangered -- is key to avoiding impacts on training in the future."