Species conservation and the military may not seem like natural partners, but the lands managed by the Department of Defense provide refuge for many threatened and endangered species.
Numerous research projects conducted in the College of Natural Resources and Environment are helping the military understand and manage its vulnerable flora and fauna while maintaining military operations.
“Military bases in the Southeast have more at-risk species per acre than any other public lands in the region,” said Verl Emrick, an ecologist at the college’s Conservation Management Institute. “They have to sustainably manage the land for both military training activities and species conservation.”
The institute is examining how land disturbances on military properties affect vegetation and ecosystem processes. Military training commonly creates two main disturbances: physical disturbance from heavy vehicles and fire from discharging weapons.
Fire is the chief reason endangered species in the Southeast are persisting on military lands while diminishing elsewhere. “Fire plays an important part in the life cycle of some endangered plants,” Emrick said. “It was once a regular part of the ecosystem and enhanced conditions for certain species. The most beneficial effect of military training activities in the Southeast is the reintroduction of periodic fires.”
Research by Emrick and his team at the Fort Pickett Maneuver Training Center in Blackstone, Va., is helping military personnel improve the management of military lands for long-term sustainability. The site contains the world’s largest population of the federally endangered Michaux’s sumac, a fire-adapted shrub in the cashew family. Because it favors open areas, the shrub is distributed throughout the firing ranges and impact areas that burn at least every other year.
“This is a plant that likes getting burned,” Emrick said. “We’re assessing the frequency and level of disturbance necessary to maintain the overall population, which will mean increasing fires in some locations.”
The Nottoway River, which runs along Fort Pickett’s southern boundary, harbors one of the nation’s few viable populations of the Atlantic pigtoe mussel, another rare species. The Department of Defense is working with the Conservation Management Institute and the college’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation to reverse the pigtoe’s population decline before it is listed as endangered. Propagation is the most proactive way to support waning populations, but research is needed into the species’ unique reproductive cycle, including the identity of the host fish upon which larval mussels depend. Only then can the mussels be successfully propagated and released into the Nottoway.
Carola Haas, a professor of wildlife ecology, and Tom Gorman, a research scientist, are working on an adaptive management project at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to reduce conflicts between military activities and rare amphibians. Species such as the Florida bog frog, a state species of concern that occurs almost exclusively on the base, and the federally endangered reticulated flatwoods salamander are of particular concern. Some of their recommended wetland restoration techniques have been implemented in conjunction with nearby Hurlburt Field and on other federal and state lands.
“A very strong prescribed fire program at Eglin has likely been beneficial for these amphibians,” Haas said. “Several rare or declining amphibians at these sites are expected to respond positively to efforts to restore or mimic natural processes in the wetlands.”
Haas and Gorman are conducting this large-scale adaptive management project in partnership with the Department of Defense, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are also collaborating with colleagues in the Department of Biological Sciences to monitor populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers and gopher tortoises at Eglin.
At the Naval Support Facility in Indian Head, Md., John Munsell, an associate professor and Extension specialist, and John Wilburn of Richmond, Va., a master’s student studying forest management in the college’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, collaborated with Navy natural resources staff to conduct a forest inventory and develop a plan for long-term ecosystem management.
The base’s extensive forests and location along the Potomac River make it prime habitat for bald eagles. Wilburn developed a model of forest habitat for the eagles using nest sites on the base and then simulated and evaluated the potential effects of forest management treatments, finding a level of thinning that is favorable to both eagle nesting and economic yields.
“Balancing mission objectives and environmental sustainability at U.S. Department of Defense facilities is important to the health and security of the United States, and our college has a strong tradition of working with the military to do so,” said Munsell. “Our facility-focused projects demonstrate an ability to partner with the Department of Defense in multiple ways.”
Professor Jim Fraser and Associate Professor Sarah Karpanty of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation advised Kacy Ray of Columbus, Ohio, who completed her master's degree in wildlife science in 2011, on a collaborative project to study Wilson’s plovers at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the only site in the continental U.S. where the Marines can practice amphibious landings.
Ray studied the physical and biological factors that affect habitat use, reproduction, and survival of Wilson’s plovers, designated a species of concern in North Carolina and a species of high concern in the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan.
Her work, part of the larger Defense Coastal/Estuarine Research Program, contributed to Camp Lejeune’s beach management plan and to the population and habitat research goals outlined in the U.S. Shorebird Plan.
Professor Jim Fraser and Associate Professor Sarah Karpanty of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation oversee wildlife science master’s students Matt Hillman of Southborough, Mass., and Audrey Derose-Wilson of Camden, Mich., who are studying the effects of military overflights from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point on shorebird ecology and behavior at North Carolina's Cape Lookout National Seashore.
“We have deployed sound recording devices and covert infrared time lapse cameras on over 300 least tern, gull-billed tern, common tern, black skimmer, and Wilson’s plover nests to document the birds’ behaviors associated with various types of human disturbance,” Hillman said.
The students' findings will help the Marine Corps and the National Park Service implement effective management strategies that will benefit each of these at-risk seabird species.
Virginia Tech wildlife researchers are conducting the first systematic study of red knots in Virginia, a shorebird that is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection.
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