FORT HOOD, Texas - They came three weeks after the largest acreage wildfire in the installation's history.
Leaders and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visited here, April 18–19, travelling from Arlington and Austin, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to see the post’s award-winning natural resources program.
The visit included tours of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, recovered black-capped vireo, cowbird trap and prescribed fire sites.
The trip was not in response to the big wildfire, dubbed the Crittenberg Complex Fire.
Instead, they came in April as they’ve done for many years in a collaborative effort with Fort Hood’s Natural and Cultural Resources Management Branch to manage two species: the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and the, now recovered, black-capped vireo.
However, sharing news of the endangered species habitat loss with a regulatory agency can be intimidating. But because of the long, constructive history of working together with the same leaders, the NCRMB was more easily able to be upfront about the effects of the wildfires.
Fire sets in motion ecological succession. Prescribed fires protect golden-cheeked warbler habitats, less than 30-years-old in succession closed-canopy forest by consuming grass and brush fuels that present fire danger to this mostly closed canopy forest. Therefore, prescribed fires set back grass succession, minimizing and sometimes eliminating the fine fuel threats that often start massive wildfires.
Black-capped vireos prefer a 5 to 20-year habitat that is more open with shrubs as the dominant woody vegetation rather than forested areas. Fires that favor vireos include wildfires and much hotter prescribed fires burning back woody plants almost to the ground and providing openings between brush stands.
“There will be some new (black-capped) vireo habitat come out of this one,” said Carl Schwope, USFWS wildland fire management officer, when referencing what he expects Fort Hood will gain from the Crittenberg fire.
His assignment specifically addressed endangered species habitat protection while suppressing part of the late-March inferno.
Schwope has managed fires and habitat at nearby Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Marble Falls for more than 20 years. Ecologically, the refuge’s bird habitat is similar to Fort Hood’s.
The BCNWR team has prescribed burned more than 77,000 acres here since 2017 through an agreement with NCRMB.
One of its main objectives is to reduce the wildfire threat to golden-cheeked warbler habitat by prescribed burning.
Preliminary reports suggest that only 4% of the land burned by all wildfires in 2022 was golden-cheeked warbler habitat. And most of what was lost is expected to benefit the black-capped vireo, which was de-listed in 2018.
That de-listing by the USFWS was in part due to Fort Hood’s management of the black-capped vireo. NCRMB closely monitors both birds and their science experts expect remaining habitat to continue to support a healthy recovery unit.
Partnership field trip
The in-person field trip builds interagency relations and leaders agree such meetings are more productive, convincing and better at conveying the overall picture and true nature of the robust NCRMB program.
NCRMB and USFWS staffers toured various training areas, including habitats, cowbird traps, recent prescribed burned areas, wildfire scars and a most recent tornado that tore through the Manning Mountain area on the west range.
Despite the recent disturbances, seeing an adult vireo in hand and a warbler nest with eggs 20 feet high in a tree canopy through a peeper camera reminds the NCRMB that these bird species will sustain the recovery of one and help the population of the other, respectively.
Collectively, these personal accounts made the visit another positive experience for all the professionals new and old.
“The USFWS has had their interns shadow our warbler and vireo biologist for professional development,” said Virginia Sanders, NCRMB endangered species program manager.
As part of the permitting process, she said the USFWS validates and ensures the biologists have the skills and qualifications to net handle, band and track the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
Sanders added that the Fort Hood leadership routinely invites the USFWS to visit the installation to demonstrate the quality the program here.
“Over the decades, the staffs have worked together and have had a very effective collaboration of science which has been incorporated into our management methods,” she said.
Omar Bocanegra, USFWS supervisory fish and wildlife biologist who coordinated the visit, expressed his thanks to the branch bird team.
“Please let the warbler, vireo, and cowbird crews know how much everyone appreciated them taking time from their busy day to share their knowledge and experience,” Bocanegra wrote.
Meeting Jon Martinez, the newest USFWS military lands conservation coordinator who serves as the Sikes Act point of contact, will also be helpful in balancing the natural resources mission with the Army’s future training mission.
The Sikes Act authorizes Fort Hood to partner with the USFWS for the implementation of the Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan.
The INRMP is the guiding document that lists the installation’s objectives and intent for sustaining healthy, functioning ecosystems on military training lands.
NCRMB has signed interagency agreements with the USFWS to promote the management of natural resources on Fort Hood as outlined in the INRMP, including Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery for live channel catfish, and the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge Fire Module for prescribed fire for endangered species habitat protection.
The USFWS biologists and forestry technicians (prescribed fire personnel) are technical experts in their field. NCRMB receives the highest quality services and cost effectiveness from these agreements.
That quality of services extends to recreational fishing ponds, where over the past 40 years, the post has stocked fish from Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery, supporting anglers fishing at it’s training areas and the annual Kids Fishing Derby at the Cantonment B Pond.
Finally, Bocanegra mentioned the Sikes Act leadership transition that impacts Fort Hood, and summed up the trip in his own words.
“I appreciate getting our new Military Lands Conservation coordinator, Jon Martinez, out there to meet and offer you help ... with Sikes Act coordination and other projects,” he wrote. “Thanks again for another amazing trip to the Great Place. Our group was very impressed with the work, dedication and commitment your team shows for the fort’s natural resources.”
· Editor’s note: Virginia Sanders contributed to this story.