Chris Dobony, a fish and wildlife biologist at Fort Drum, N.Y., poses for a portrait by a managed wildlife habitat on July 29. The flowery meadows where tanks rumble and soldiers hone their shooting skills are also home to an astounding abundance of birds and other wildlife. The same is true of America's other military posts, which serve as repositories of natural resources that are closely monitored and managed. (KEVIN RIVOLI / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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FORT DRUM, N.Y. The fields and forests of Fort Drum are home to more than the renowned 10th Mountain Division, the Army's most-deployed division.
The flowery meadows where tanks rumble and soldiers hone their shooting skills are also home to an astounding abundance of birds and other wildlife. The same is true of America's other military posts, which serve as repositories of natural resources that are closely monitored and managed.
"Military land in general has a higher concentration of endangered species than land in most other ownership," said Jeff Bolsinger, a research associate from Colorado State University who has been monitoring bird populations at northern New York's Fort Drum since 1995. That's because in many areas, military reservations are the only large, contiguous tracts of undeveloped land.
"If you look at satellite images, some military installations on the West Coast stand out as the only green areas in a sea of development," said Chris Dobony, a biologist employed by the Army to manage Fort Drum's wildlife habitats.
According to the U.S. Army Environmental Command, the Army has spent more than $40 million on conservation of endangered species on its lands. Conservation efforts generally involve preserving or creating habitat and scheduling or relocating training exercises so they don't disrupt breeding and nesting.
Camp San Luis Obispo in California designed an erosion control program to preserve the endangered Red-Legged Frog. Fort Riley in Kansas has become one of the nation's largest bald eagle wintering grounds with as many as 388 eagles seen in a single night. Camp Ripley in Minnesota has developed the nation's only gray wolf monitoring program and the Pennsylvania National Guard relocated mechanized training at Fort Indiantown Gap to protect the threatened Regal Fritillary butterfly.
Forts Bragg, Benning and Stewart, in North Carolina and Georgia, have achieved such success in protecting endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers that they now serve as donors to reintroduce the species to southeastern national parks and forests.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, military lands comprise more than 25 million acres representing diverse habitat types such as old-growth forests, tall-grass prairies and vernal pool wetlands. The federal Sikes Act, originally enacted in 1960, required the Defense Department to complete Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans for military installations by 2001.
The plans, updated annually, are intended to protect and enhance valuable ecosystems while allowing the lands to meet the needs of military operations.
On a recent drive around 167-square-mile Fort Drum, Bolsinger pointed out a tiny, streaked brown bird on a distant shrub. "You can hear its little hiccup call, sort of a ‘tsi-lick! tsi-lick!' That's a Henslow's Sparrow," he said. "He's in that exact spot every time I stop here."
Habitat loss across its eastern U.S. range has made the species rare. "When visiting birders come here, that's the bird they always ask me to take them to see," Bolsinger said.
Fort Drum's 3,500-4,000 contiguous acres of grassland, maintained for tank maneuvers and target shooting, makes for ideal habitat for grassland species such as the Henslow's Sparrow.
"People often think there's a negative impact on wildlife because of the noise that occurs the shooting, the training," Dobony said. "But it's funny, wildlife seems to adapt very readily to training activities and human presence. We've seen wild turkeys out on the range facilities when they're firing 50-caliber guns, or a bear will walk by the edge of an active range."
About three-quarters of Fort Drum is forested with hardwoods such as maple, beech, birch, aspen, and black cherry. The rest is open grassland or shrubland. There are numerous streams, ponds and wetlands.
"We find that some of the more rare species are holding up pretty well here," Bolsinger said.
The Red-Headed Woodpecker, scarce in other areas of the state, is numerous in oaks near the base airfield. Whip-Poor-Wills and Common Nighthawks, which have declined across the country, are numerous on Fort Drum's sandplain grasslands. Clay-Colored Sparrows, rare in the Northeast, nest in shrublands here.
Until recently, natural resource management at the base has focused primarily on monitoring species and ensuring that training exercises weren't adversely affecting wildlife. Now, management is being stepped up to actively create prime habitat.
"Across the Northeast, early successional habitat is declining," Dobony said. That's habitat where grasslands are growing into shrublands. Forests and development have largely replaced such habitat.
Historically, early successional habitat was created when fire, insect outbreaks, windstorms or beaver colonies destroyed forest land. Now, those forces are suppressed. "The only really efficient and effective way we can get the same effect is through clear-cutting," Dobony said. That's being done now at Fort Drum.
"We've put about 120 acres into this management scenario, and over the next three to five years we'll increase that to 500 to 1,000 acres," Dobony said. The acreage is broken up into plots of about five to 10 acres in a checkerboard pattern. The plots are clear-cut on a staggered time schedule so they're always in different stages of regrowth to provide a variety of habitats.
"This type of management benefits a great range of species," Dobony said. "We have an abundance of American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse, which have been in decline for the last 30 years in most areas of the state. They're popular game species that are hunted here."
Parking areas, trails, and informational kiosks are being constructed for birders and hunters at the new habitat areas along a highway that crosses the military base. About 3,000 people a year visit Fort Drum for recreational purposes, including birding, hunting, and fishing, Dobony said.
"For a long time it was considered kind of a secret among birders that you could come here and see all these birds that are really hard to find anywhere else in the state," Dobony said. "We're trying to get the word out that, as long as you follow the rules, you can come here for some great birding."