SAN ANTONIO -- Endangered species protection and military training land management often overlap as Army installations across the U.S. work collaboratively to ensure quality habitat exists for wildlife in realistic training areas where troops carry out mission-critical readiness exercises.

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In 2020, there were approximately 226 species listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act on 13.5 million acres managed by the Army. Today, there are a multitude of success stories where federally protected species are flourishing due to the Army’s conservation efforts and land management practices.

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The most well-known species are the bald eagle and the red-cockaded woodpecker. For example, there are six breeding pairs of eagles that nest year-round on Fort Hunter Liggett in California and at Aberdeen Proving Ground the latest count found 201 bald eagles along APG shorelines. Once endangered, the bald eagle populations have now recovered and been delisted under the Endangered Species Act, though still federally protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Many eagles find a home on Army lands. On installations like Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Benning in Georgia, and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the Army has worked to revitalize longleaf pine habitat and build artificial cavities designed to mimic the red-cockaded woodpecker’s natural breeding grounds. The woodpeckers have received a lot of press recently since they have been proposed to be reclassified from endangered to threatened, but many other species also deserve recognition.

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Another example is the pine snake at Fort Polk. These non-venomous snakes spend 70 percent of their time underground feeding on pocket gophers. Since 1927, only 250 have been found in the wild. Fort Polk military personnel started trapping them in 1999 and their initial survey uncovered 30 pine snakes; a more recent survey discovered 50. Threatened and endangered species biologist Chris Melder explained, “They are extremely rare and hard to find so we used radio telemetry equipment and placed trackers on the snakes, allowing us to see where they migrate underground, which is only about three feet, but at least we can monitor their activity.”

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In addition to birds and mammals, there are also many other insects and invertebrates protected under the ESA, including pollinators. Fort McCoy in Wisconsin has a program to restore native lupine plants, which attract more than a dozen species of bees including the endangered rusty patched bumble bee. “The rusty patched bumble bee had never been observed on the installation until recently, so the fact that they are here now is a good sign that we’re doing things right,” said Chief of the Natural Resource Branch Tim Wilder. Lupine is also the host plant for both the Karner blue and frosted elfin butterflies. At most installations, Soldiers focus on limiting impacts to the species; however, on Fort McCoy, they report on habitat, such as the acres of Lupine that are disturbed rather than individual butterflies. At Fort Drum in New York, general pollinator surveys began a few years ago to determine what species were present, and native plant species are used to enhance Soldiers’ training environment and protected species. “We have also been performing invasive and grassland management to improve certain areas of the installation where we know we have monarch butterfly use,” said Christopher Dobony, a fish and wildlife biologist at Fort Drum.

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In some cases, the ability to maintain a population is just as important as trying to repopulate it.  Fort Drum currently has two species protected under the ESA: the endangered Indiana bat and the threatened northern long-eared bat. Around 2006, a disease called white-nose syndrome started decimating these bats, along with other bat species across the U.S. Although their populations have declined dramatically in many parts of their original range, they still exist in small numbers on Fort Drum.

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Amphibians and aquatic species such as toads and turtles play an important role in the ecosystem and are benefitting from Army-wide conservation actions. On Fort Hunter Liggett, the arroyo toad has been threatened by invasive species along the San Antonio river where the toads lay strands of eggs in shallow, slow-moving water. “This year we will start using hand-crews to remove above-ground biomass of invasive plants and general stream clearance to rehabilitate important breeding areas,” said Jacquelyn Hancock, a garrison wildlife biologist. There are also two turtle species on Fort Drum and Fort McCoy that are under review for federal protection. “We are currently developing some localized best management practices to proactively limit any adverse impacts to these species,” said Dobony.

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“Overall, our goal is to ensure that troops and military equipment can utilize the land in a meaningful way, and at the same time, be good stewards of the land by removing plants like thatch, thistle, and tamarisk to improve the habitat for species who have been here long before we were,” said Hancock. “The mission comes first but we strive to ensure all species, not just threatened and endangered species, have a healthy environment where they can prosper.”