Air Force conservation programs score victories

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LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — The Air Force is trustee to more than 8 million acres of land, water and air assets, and is home to more than 70 threatened and endangered species.

Stewardship of these resources, in conjunction with sustainment of critical military mission activities, is a key priority for conservation programs across the Air Force, officials said.

Program achievements during fiscal 2010 were widespread, with many accomplishments in support of endangered species.

Results

Measures taken by program officials in Texas, for example, have resulted in population increases for both the Okaloosa darter and the red-cockaded woodpecker. The darter relies on clear water streams, and approximately 95 percent of the total remaining population of the tiny endangered fish resides on the base.

Base officials’ efforts to abate erosion at stream crossings and improve crossing structures in critical habitat areas have resulted in a population increase and a determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to down-list the species from “endangered” to “threatened” status.

Fish trail

The victory is the result of hard work and the implementation of innovative measures, such as creating and installing a sky-lighted culvert on Eglin AFB’s golf course.

The well-lit culvert encourages fish to travel through it while still allowing golfers to traverse the course. Eglin AFB officials also made strides in protecting another endangered species on base: the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Preferred habitat

Old-growth longleaf pine trees on the installation are the preferred habitat for the bird, and Eglin AFB’s forest represents the largest contiguous tract of old-growth longleaf pine in the world. Wildlife biologists at Eglin AFB have mapped, monitored and protected existing woodpecker clusters and created new nest sites for population expansion by drilling tree cavities.

Foresters implement periodic controlled burns and use timber sales to maintain and enhance the landscape of mature longleaf pines with an open understory that is preferred by the woodpeckers.

Controlled burns

Controlled burns support the mission by reducing the quantity and density of hazardous fuels that may ignite from munitions testing activity on the range, according to Kevin Porteck, a natural resources subject-matter expert at the Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment.

When range operations inadvertently start a fire, the resulting fires are of lower intensity and easier to control.

The Barry M. Goldwater Range in southwestern Arizona is also home to endangered species.

The range provides an important landscape for military pilot training, while also supporting habitat for the Sonoran pronghorn antelope. Long-term drought conditions caused the antelope’s population to crash to a low of only around 20 animals in 2002.

Since that time, management techniques and a collaborative partnership between the Air Force, Marine Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Arizona Game and Fish Department have led to an increase in the population, with a current estimate of 68 free-ranging animals and 52 in a semi-captive breeding facility. At least 25 fawns were born in 2010.

Establishing second population

Plans are under way to establish a second population in a separate location, possibly at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, to limit the impacts of potential disease and other factors on the population.

Least Tern

In partnership with the Ventura office of the USFWS, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science and the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology, at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., was awarded the 2010 Coastal America Award.

According to Rhys Evans, the natural resources lead at Vandenberg AFB, an important biodiversity goal is to promote the population growth of the California Least Tern, a seabird on the endangered species list, while maintaining the health of the surrounding ecosystem.

Vandenberg AFB officials established a Least Tern Management Team, which works collaboratively to accomplish management of this endangered species.

Base officials provide funding for the team, and they erected and maintain an electric fence around the colony. PRBO Conservation Science biologists conduct daily population and productivity monitoring, while the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology personnel engage in non-lethal removal of predators, and USFWS officials coordinate with all of the partners on the adaptive management of this resource.

Increasing population

While increasing population numbers was a goal for some natural infrastructure programs last year, Air Force Academy officials were tackling the opposite problem. Rising populations of mountain pine beetles have ravaged more than 4 million acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pine across Colorado, but proactive measures taken by the Academy team have successfully prevented the school’s trees from suffering the same fate.

Efforts to curtail an epidemic included combing the Academy with intensive field surveys to locate infested trees and promptly removing the trees to prevent further spread. The forestry staff there stepped up the forest thinning program as well, focusing on densely stocked forests that were at high risk for beetle attack due to heavy competition for water, nutrients and light.

Infestation

Approximately 300 infested trees were removed in 2007 and only 12 in 2010. The Academy could have lost as many as 8,000 trees by this summer if these measures had not been taken.

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