Managing and protecting endangered plant and animal species found on U.S. Army installations has always been challenging.
Now, with the number of these species expanding and the rules regarding their protection evolving, Army environmental and training professionals are having to focus even more on finding the right balance that keeps the training mission as the focus and protects and preserves the increasing number of threatened and endangered species.
“It definitely keeps me on my toes,” said Jessup Weichelt, endangered species biologist at Fort McCoy. “For the longest time, we only had one federally endangered species, the Karner blue butterfly, now just in the last two or three years, we’ve added the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, the Northern Long-eared Bat and the Gray Wolf, and there are several more under review. We could go from one endangered species up to maybe as many as 10 in a matter of just 10 years.”
Weichelt said that in addition to the federally listed species, the Fort McCoy team also manages 15 state endangered and 18 threatened plant and animal species. That growing list, combined with the need to provide the land necessary for training, means long hours poring over data.
“A large part of my job is in the office, paying close attention to National Environmental Policy Act assessments and ensuring compliance,” Weichelt said, admitting that “like a lot of people who go into the environmental field, I enjoy being outdoors.”
Weichelt said that each endangered species found at the installation brings unique challenges, and the commonly held perception that once an endangered species is discovered all military operations must be shut down is incorrect. He said the real answers are never that simple.
“A really good example of that is the frosted elfin butterfly (a state threatened species under consideration for inclusion on the federal endangered species list),” he said, adding that research his team conducted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows that the terrain disturbances that result from Army training often benefit the butterfly and its habitat.
“The shredding of shrubs in the forest understory to maintain bivouac areas is an example of a management activity that benefits both the military mission and frosted elfin butterfly habitat,” he said. “So, if this species is listed, we’ll have the data to provide to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that documents what we are doing now is benefitting the butterfly.”
Weichelt said that both training lands and endangered species habitat are threatened by invasive species, or non-native plants and animals that can spread aggressively.
“We have more than 40 invasive species that we actively manage, the ones that are more threatening to not only endangered species but to military training require a lot of attention,” he said. “Glossy buckthorn – which is a shrub -- is by far one of our most intensely managed species. If you don’t manage it, it will form dense stands reducing the areas usefulness for military training and as habitat for endangered species. To prevent that, we utilize many different treatment methods to prevent this species from spreading to new areas and to reduce its stem density in areas where it already occurs.
Fort McCoy is also home to six different bat species, including threatened and endangered species.
“Ninety percent of Fort McCoy is bat habitat,” he said adding that even among bat species that seem very similar, there are major differences in their behaviors that affect their species vitality. He said while many bat species are being threatened by white nose syndrome, its impact varies depending upon the life history of each individual species.
“The little brown bat and the big brown bat are both found here,” he said. “But big brown bats don’t hibernate in clusters like the little brown bats, so they haven’t been as impacted by the white nose syndrome.
Weichelt said that keeping up with these differences is rewarding.
“My job is to maintain the military mission and to manage these endangered species to allow that mission to occur,” he said. “What’s good for one might not be good for another – there are conflicting needs that we work to balance.”
And on good days, that means getting out into the field.
“By far the best part of this job is the field work in the summer to include pollinator surveys, bat surveys and that sort of work,” he said. “Today I went out and caught a bull snake which we swabbed as part of a DoD study on snake fungal disease. We’ve been capturing and swabbing snakes and submitting these samples as part of this study for the last three years. Luckily, the one I just caught looks very healthy.”