In the Southwest, species like the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler have found refuge in unexpected havens.
Though primarily dedicated to national defense, Department of Defense installations have become sanctuaries for a diverse array of wildlife. Restricted access and controlled land use on the DoD’s vast tracts of land offer plants and wildlife protection from the encroaching pressures of human development and preserve the environments in which they thrive.
In fact, the DoD has the highest density of species listed as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act of any federal land management agency.
In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, dedicated biologists working in the Military Lands Conservation Program offer their expertise and assistance to monitor and recover these species, restore habitats and provide recreational opportunities to service members through hunting and fishing.
It’s a big job. Across the region, more than 80 military installations are spread across 15 different ecoregions in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, amounting to about 6.7 million acres of land.
“To give you some context, that's slightly bigger than the state of Massachusetts,” said Jonathan Martinez, Military Lands Conservation Program Regional Coordinator. “That's a lot of federal lands with habitats and species on them. In fact, five of the ten largest installations in the country are in our region.”
As a federal landowner, the DoD is required to protect listed species on their bases and develop Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans under the Sikes Act. But maintaining healthy ecosystems on military installations isn’t just an environmental concern, it is also crucial for military mission readiness.
“One of the optimal benefits of this program is the intersection of conservation and military readiness,” said Jeff Fleming, the Southwest Region's Deputy Regional Director. “These collaborative efforts help conserve our nation's natural resources and support outdoor recreational opportunities on military lands while simultaneously contributing to our nation's defense infrastructure.”
For DoD, proactive conservation of at-risk species on their installations can help preclude the need for federal listing under the ESA, which can keep critical training areas unrestricted. Maintaining natural habitat to promote the recovery of listed species maintains realistic training environments. And managing native and non-native game populations can provide recreational opportunities to service members to enhance morale.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service benefits too. Partnering with large federal landowners like DoD allows the Service to leverage their extensive landholdings and resources to achieve broader conservation goals. These partnerships can enhance the protection of species and ecosystems, promote integrated land management practices, and foster public engagement in conservation efforts.
In states that are primarily privately owned, this partnership is crucial in meeting conservation goals for imperiled species.
“Texas and Oklahoma have little public lands, so these are some of the only areas in rural locations that might have trees or habitat for different species,” Martinez said. “DoD installations contribute a lot to conservation just by existing and being maintained in those natural states.”
Keep reading to learn about just a few of the projects the program is working on in Texas and Oklahoma.
At Fort Bliss, located in West Texas and New Mexico, the Military Lands Conservation Program has five full-time biologists devoted to the 1.12-million-acre installation. Fort Bliss is the U.S. Army’s second largest installation and is larger than the state of Rhode Island.
“There’s no shortage of things to do,” said Biologist Michael Jungen. “The base is so big it has its own endemic species. This means Fort Bliss has an outsized role and responsibility for the conservation of these species and our team is here to help.”
A diversity of habitats can be found on the base, including portions of the Sacramento, Organ, Franklin and Hueco Mountain ranges. It is also home to a vast desert landscape and the Otero Mesa, one of the largest remaining Chihuahuan Desert grasslands.
Within these habitats, staff monitor and conduct formal surveys for a variety of plant and wildlife species. This includes the Hueco rock daisy, which only grows in a couple of canyons in the Hueco Mountains, the rare Baird’s sparrow, which winters in the Otero Mesa, and the endangered Aplomado falcon, which inhabits tracts of Chihuahuan desert grasslands.
Service biologists are also monitoring and managing invasive and non-native species like African rue, Aoudad sheep and oryx. Managing hunting programs for these exotic game species provides unique recreational opportunities for service members on the base.
“We're trying to get more hunters on base to harvest them so that we can get the population down to a more manageable size,” Jungen said. “So we are able to facilitate a unique hunting experience here on Fort Bliss for these charismatic ungulates all in the name of population management and ecosystem stabilization.”
Dyess Air Force Base
At Dyess Air Force Base, located in North-Central Texas within the city limits of Abilene, the Service has one full time biologist dedicated to the 5,937-acre installation. The base’s location within the Rolling Plains ecoregion houses grasslands and areas and supports a rich diversity of birds, bats and other wildlife species.
"We did three surveys this spring, and we documented 45 different species just in three mornings,” said Fish and Wildlife Biologist Conner Cox. “So it’s very diverse. We have over 200 different bird species that either migrate through or reside on Dyess Air Force Base.”
A major focus for the program at Dyess is grassland restoration to benefit ground nesting birds like bobwhite quail, eastern meadowlark and Rio Grande turkey. Since the program began managing the natural resources at the base, staff have restored hundreds of acres of habitat for the benefit of these birds and at-risk pollinators like monarch butterflies and Sonoran bumblebee.
“Grasslands are the number one declining habitat in North America, so my future goal is to have the majority of the base back to the historic native rolling plains habitat by removing mesquites, using prescribed fire and seeding to increase our native grassland areas,” Cox said.
Prescribed fires don’t just help restore grassland habitat for wildlife. Cox said these efforts help ensure that if a wildfire were to occur on the base, it would be easier to contain, protecting military assets along with the safety and security of personnel stationed at the base.
The program’s habitat restoration efforts on the base help DoD in other ways too, especially near the working airfield.
“Managing good areas of habitat away from airfields and crew increases flight safety,” Cox said. “Drawing the species into more beneficial habitat keeps them from going to the airfield to feed or roost or perch.”
In Oklahoma, the Southwest Region’s Military Lands Conservation Program has two full-time biologists working at several DoD installations, including Altus Air Force Base, Vance Air Force Base, Kegelman Air Force Auxiliary Field, and Tinker Air Force Base.
The state's location at the intersection of several major ecological regions, including the Great Plains, the Ozark Mountains, and the Ouachita Mountains, contributes to supporting a rich diversity of plant and animal life.
The endangered whooping crane, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act, is a focus of the program due to the potential risk of collisions with aircraft. These collisions could pose danger to pilots, property, and the cranes themselves.. At Vance Air Force Base, program biologists are monitoring for the birds to make sure they aren’t stopping over at the Kegelman Air Force Auxiliary Air Field during their migration to and from their winter and summer nesting grounds in Canada and Texas.
“The Air Force has been very open and eager for us to work on different kinds of projects,” said Fish and Wildlife Biologist Wade Gurley. “They want us to come in and survey for threatened and endangered species, and they're proactively taking the steps to protect and enhance habitats on bases for them.”
Program biologists are also monitoring for at-risk species like the Texas horned lizard, which is a species of concern for Oklahoma and Texas. The collaborative project with staff at Altus Air Force Base aims to help biologists understand why the species is declining and gather data on their range and abundance in the area.
“The Texas horned lizard project is the first project that I took on when I got this job,” Gurley said. “Now we're trying to expand the monitoring program to other bases outside of just Altus so that we can get more information about this at-risk species.”
Across the state, the program biologists are conducting formal bird surveys on the Air Force’s bases so that they have the data they need to ensure their INRMP is in compliance. These data also support information needs of Service programs like Ecological Services and Migratory Birds.
At Tinker Air Force Base, the program is conducting these surveys along with acoustic bat monitoring in an area of old post oak habitat filled with 300-year-old trees.
“The Air Force wants to know if anything is out there that may be protected in the future,” said Fish and Wildlife Biologist Matt Mogle. “Something I find really meaningful within my job is giving them the information they need to help manage their natural resources better.”
Outside of the Military Lands Conservation Program, other programs in the Service’s Southwest Region work with DoD on an ongoing basis at a variety of installations, including Ecological Services, Fish and Aquatic Conservation, Office of Law Enforcement and Fire Management.
In addition to collaborating to meet conservation goals for wildlife, the Service’s Southwest region is growing these partnerships in new and novel areas including working with DoD on education and interpretation of natural resources on their bases, monitoring historic and cultural resources, and providing internships and volunteer opportunities through the DOD Skillbridge program and Operation Warfighter program.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proud to partner with the Department of Defense to advance our shared conservation goals,” said Stewart Jacks, the Southwest Assistant Regional Director for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. “By working together, we can leverage our respective expertise and resources to ensure the enduring health of our ecosystems and the species that depend on them.”
To learn more about the Service’s military lands conservation efforts nationwide, visit https://www.fws.gov/program/military-lands-conservation.