ARMY FIRING RANGE UNIQUE SPOT FOR BIRD STUDY
BY JIM KEANY
Training combat-ready troops and protecting scarce habitats seems an unlikely combination of activities, yet these are two of the missions being undertaken by the U. S. Department of the Army on a large parcel of land in eastern Washington.
The Yakima Training Center (YTC), which occupies most of the land between the Columbia River, I-90 and I-82 in Yakima County, not only is the site of troop maneuvers and heavy artillery practice, but represents one of the two largest unaltered
"It's a bit ironic that we have the Defense Department to thank for the two largest remaining parcels of shrub-steppe habitat and the largest undeveloped parcel in the Puget Sound region (Fort Lewis)," commented Mark Rector, a wildlife biologist studying bird species that are dependent on the shrub-steppe habitat.
Shrub-steppe in Washington is characterized by generally dry areas of sagebrush and bunchgrass inhabited by coyotes, rattlesnakes, deer, hawks, falcons, small birds, and in the spring, an array of colorful wildflowers. A person standing atop Umtanum Ridge can look over rolling hills and ridges and glimpse what the entire area east of the Cascades looked like when explorers and settlers crossed Washington hundreds of years ago.
As eastern Washington land has been converted from sagebrush to agricultural use, available natural habitat has decreased in size, and the remaining parcels are fragmented and often disturbed by other uses, such as grazing. This reduction in habitat has resulted in a corresponding decrease in native plant and wildlife populations. Consequently, the task of providing a habitat for a variety of species dependent on shrub-steppe habitat has fallen partially to the Army at its 510-square-mile Yakima Training Center.
Military training has taken place at the center since 1942. Over the past 15 years, the Army has increased its role as land steward of this diminishing habitat, and increased its emphasis on management of the shrub-steppe. In fact, the Army has a staff of more than a dozen biologists whose responsibility it is to manage the natural resources of the military installation in coordination with the Army's primary role of troop training.
Over the years, these biologists have documented the occurrences of plants and wildlife on the site, have set aside restricted areas to eliminate effects from training activities, and conducted research to refine management strategies. Sometimes species-specific studies are required to better determine the requirements of wildlife that inhabit the area. Biologists are particularly interested in two bird species being considered for special status as "endangered" by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: the sage sparrow and sage thrasher.
With typical military precision, the center undertook a wildlife research project to learn more about the sage sparrow and sage thrasher, and determine their breeding density and habitat characteristics. As a first step, the Army called in wildlife specialists from Shapiro and Associates who joined forces with Army biologists to lead a six-month investigation of the area. The results of the avian study are needed in order to develop a management plan that will help preserve the valuable habitat.
Once the team was assembled, the scope of the study was finalized, sampling protocols were established, and the area divided into study sections. To sample the array of sagebrush habitat at different elevations and within different topographic features, biologists established 32 one-kilometer-long transects through the center in February 1996. The work of conducting bird censuses, nest searches and vegetation studies took place in the spring and early summer.
Adding to the challenge of conducting such a large-scale project, were logistical issues. First was transportation. Most of the roads on the installation were unpaved, unmarked, and often deeply rutted, steep and washed-out from spring flows, or overgrown from non-use, or a combination of both.
When Shapiro conducted a vegetation study at the Center in 1989, staff had the luxury of using military helicopters, which allowed them to visit and sample large areas in a relatively short amount of time. Because this was a bird study, the use of helicopters was not an option, which meant biologists logged numerous hours behind the wheel of large four-wheel drive
"It was a good day when we only got one flat tire," commented a biologist who worked a previous field season at the Center.
A second logistical challenge was communication. Because of the rolling terrain, cellular phones did not always function, requiring repositioning until connections between research teams were made. Walkie-talkies often provided no better communication links than cellular phones.
A third challenge was the weather. The contrasts in conditions from the beginning to the end of the field season were striking. In the early spring, slick mud was the norm; in late spring, it was a fine dust that infiltrated everything. Early in the season, snow and hail were common occurrences; later, temperatures climbed above 90.
Collection of consistent data meant that if weather conditions were marginal, no bird data would be collected. There were even times when, by the time field crews arrived at their census points, stiff winds had kicked up. This meant the birds hunkered down in the sagebrush, quiet and out of sight of the biologists there to count them.
Another challenge to field crews was the hours during which the study could be conducted. Since birds are among the first creatures to stir in the morning, a census taker's day began at 4:30 a. m. and continued for only four hours after sunrise. As the temperature rose, bird activity declined, leaving biologists to fill up their afternoons with nest searches or vegetation data collection.
Even with all the challenges faced by field crews, biologists were pleased to be out in the shrub-steppe. "We were thrilled that the Army was conducting such a thorough study and excited that we could be a part of it," said Julia Tims, a field team leader. "Projects like this don't come along very often."
The Yakima Training Center is not the only Army installation that is taking a stronger role in resource management. Its west side counterpart, Fort Lewis, also has been managing its natural resources. Ecological studies on Fort Lewis have ranged from research on maintaining native outwash prairie vegetation to better integration of wildlife management and forestry practices.
"The priorities of the Natural Resource Programs at Fort Lewis
Fort Lewis is making the highest possible use of its natural resource budget allocations, conducting studies and making improvements to better manage resources. Current projects range from the Muck Creek rehabilitation project that includes cleaning and replacing gravel, removing non-native plants, and planting trees along the banks to shade out unwanted grass, on ongoing monitoring of breeding eagles at American Lake, prairie restoration, hydrologic studies on Murray Creek, and cultural resource research.
Both Fort Lewis and the Yakima Training Center have gained the attention of outside conservation groups, such as the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy, who have provided assistance in the inventory of plant communities and wildlife. They also voiced their support for the military's natural resource management programs.
A look at the driving forces behind land use change east of the Cascades (agricultural development) and west (commercial and residential encroachment) adds significance to the value of remaining open space. The U. S. Department of the Army is taking its role as environmental steward of its land holdings seriously. It continues to increase its knowledge of the habitat and refine its management strategies.
At the Yakima Center, staff manage a large GIS database system that quickly displays the known sensitive resources of various sites throughout its vast installation. When analysis of the sage sparrow and sage thrasher data gathered by Shapiro is completed, the results will be added to the database in an effort to further enhance the Army's ability to manage its multiple roles of troop training and land management.
In addition to the ongoing accumulation of baseline data and implementation of management plans, sensitive and significant habitats on the Center have been marked using color-coded bars that indicate off-limits to troops, and all military activity is planned using an environmental coordination map that indicates restriction zones for sensitive habitats such as wetlands and stream corridors, or seasonal closures to protect nesting habitat for species such as the rare Swainson's hawk of known burrowing owl colonies.
Also, the public grazing allotment system was recently phased out, which will give the land an additional rest.
The Army's goal of conducting troop training and protecting limited natural resources are not necessarily compatible efforts, but the staff at the Yakima Training Center and Fort Lewis are integrating protection of habitats and species into the Army's operations. The results of these efforts will continue to provide significant contributions to the preservation of a portion of Washington's natural heritage for years to come.
Jim Keany is a wildlife biologist with Shapiro and Associates, Inc.