The showy, broad-banded Copperhead is the most common venomous snake at Fort Cavazos. Copperheads usually rest in habitats that make them disappear from obvious sight, also known as cryptic camouflage. (Photo by Paul Block, DOD PARC/Navy Virginia)
The showy, broad-banded Copperhead is the most common venomous snake at Fort Cavazos. Copperheads usually rest in habitats that make them disappear from obvious sight, also known as cryptic camouflage. (Photo by Paul Block, DOD PARC/Navy Virginia) (Photo Credit: PAUL BLOCK) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT CAVAZOS, Texas — Cricketing, barking and banjo plucking were words used describing the vocalizations local frogs make for intraspecific communication at night along the Fort Cavazos waterways. These terms help scientists communicate with each other when listening to the frog chorus to narrow down the frogs to its species.

The Fort Cavazos Natural and Cultural Resources Management Branch staff hosted a four-day event from May 29 to June 1, which allowed leaders of the Department of Defense Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation network to conduct their annual strategic planning meeting, site survey and field trip. In all, 13 professionals converged here from Texas, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia, Idaho and California.

“Plans to host these folks began at the 2022 National Military Fish and Wildlife Association training workshop over a lunch I had in Spokane, Washington, with their leadership,” explained Tim Buchanan, Fort Cavazos NCRMB chief. “We know each other through the annual NMFWA training workshops. We are thankful they came and to have hosted this DOD network meeting. We all learned a lot, enjoyed visiting and sharing what we already know.”

Fort Cavazos is home to an estimated 71 species of amphibians and reptiles, collectively known as herpetofauna. However, prior to the DOD PARC visit, 56 species were confirmed present and 15 were listed as “possible” according to the current Fort Cavazos Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan. After the field trips, 59 species of Fort Cavazos’ herpetofauna are now confirmed, with 12 still listed as possible. That’s because three frogs found June 1 were in the “possible” category, then, observed firsthand by DOD PARC herpetologists – species identification authorities who put them into the confirmed category.

The three frogs – Green Tree frog, Gray Tree frog and Copes Gray Tree frog – represent part of the amphibian diversity found at Fort Cavazos. DOD PARC national coordinator and 35-year herpetofaunal veteran Chris Petersen explained how it happened.

“Confirmed status of the Green Tree frog was based on capturing an individual near Engineer Lake,” Petersen explained. “The Gray Tree frog and Copes Gray Tree frog were confirmed by hearing their species-specific calls during night-time surveys last week. I believe they were also recorded on acoustic recording devices prior to our field surveys.”

A Green Tree frog is photographed then released June 1 at Engineer Lake in training area 30 on Fort Cavazos. Herpetologist Chris Petersen holds the frog in his safe "herpers grip," secured between his index and middle fingers. (Photo by Chris Peterson, DOD PARC)
A Green Tree frog is photographed then released June 1 at Engineer Lake in training area 30 on Fort Cavazos. Herpetologist Chris Petersen holds the frog in his safe "herpers grip," secured between his index and middle fingers. (Photo by Chris Peterson, DOD PARC) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Petersen wasn’t the only 35-year veteran of herpetology in attendance. Dr. Robert “Rob” Lovich, a Navy civilian from San Diego was also on hand. Lovich and Petersen have worked together for decades, recruiting other talent to bolster and diversify their science DOD PARC steering committee. As an ambitious “herper,” Lovich had a great time seeing all the species. A herper is a nickname used to describe a reptile and amphibian fanatic, especially by their peers. He and colleagues used hooks and other capture tools to secure venomous snakes safely. They used their bare hands to handle the non-venomous species. They always held the herps carefully so as not to harm them or lose them before positive identification and photos.

Common snakes observed included Copperhead, Western Coachwhip, Plains Ratsnake, Texas Ratsnake and Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.

“During our DOD PARC survey event, we confirmed 24 amphibian and reptile species, approximately 43 percent of all the herpetofaunal species confirmed present on the Installation previously,” Petersen said.

Though Buchanan arranged the trip by leveraging his NMFWA connections, it was the programs in his branch that benefitted from the work DOD PARC planned and executed here at the Great Place.

“We were excited to host a few of the exceptional herpetologists within the DOD,” said Virginia Sanders, NCRMB endangered species program manager. “Utilizing their rare skill set helped us to confirm the presence of a few suspected species.”

The event was a daily mix of field trips and business meetings. Field trips took place both early and late in the day and after nightfall, all at times when reptile and amphibian activity is highest. Business was done during the hotter part of the day when the species are typically less active.

One might wonder how amphibians and reptiles contribute to the Army training missions. All the herpetofauna contribute to installation biodiversity. Biodiversity is needed to maintain a healthy landscape for continued realistic Army training.

DOD PARC members Kristin Kabat and Chris Frauenhofer search for herps within the Bear Springs area of Fort Cavazos in training area 25. (U.S. Army photo by Scott Summers, Fort Cavazos DPW-NCRMB)
DOD PARC members Kristin Kabat and Chris Frauenhofer search for herps within the Bear Springs area of Fort Cavazos in training area 25. (U.S. Army photo by Scott Summers, Fort Cavazos DPW-NCRMB) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Species occurrence, threats and outreach

Of the military services, Army installations have the greatest number of confirmed amphibian and reptile species at 355. However, the Army is also the largest landowner.

Three commonly mentioned threats to herpetofauna listed repeatedly inside DOD PARC popular publications include habitat loss, road mortality and invasive species. Fort Cavazos trains numerous armored units for various military missions, however, considering lands off the installation’s boundary, Fort Cavazos, by comparison, is doing better. There is less land fragmentation, fewer roads and traffic per unit area compared to the rest of the local area, and federal policies/conservation actions and protections in place that prevent the expansion of non-native invasive species.

Outreach is a big factor in the success of DOD PARC but is also a challenge at the same time. Lovich said misconceptions about herps are one of their biggest challenges related to public outreach, which is why it is important to detail their ecological importance.

“Myths and fears are significant obstacles,” Lovich explained. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand and have a lot of misconceptions about the species we study. Trying to break through that can be difficult, but more times than not, folks see them differently after our public engagement – even if only a little bit different.”

DOD PARC is supported by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Sustainment)/Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Environment).

For more information, visit www.denix.osd.mil/dodparc/home or contact Chris Petersen, DOD PARC National Representative, at christopher.e.petersen4.civ@us.navy.mil, or Robert Lovich, Ph. D, DOD PARC National Technical Representative, at robert.e.lovich.civ@us.navy.mil.