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Conserving habitat for fauna and soldiers

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Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 12:00 pm | Updated: 8:08 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Amanda Kim Stairrett

Fort Hood Herald

Fort Hood is home to more than soldiers, tanks and helicopters. Endangered birds, Mountain Lions, bats and cave-dwelling critters also roam the more than 217,000 acres that is Fort Hood.

About 200,000 of those acres are managed by the Natural Resources Management Branch, which is under the Department of Public Works. The branch oversees care of the soil, vegetation and animals.

Managing natural resources on a military installation presents a set of challenges with which biologists at state or national parks and reserves are not familiar. The No. 1 requirement is that conservation be integrated with the military mission, said John Cornelius, Chief of Fort Hood's Natural Resources Management Branch. Biologists must work with Fort Hood officials to make sure a healthy ecosystem is maintained on post.

The branch teams with The Natural Conservancy," the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people," according to its Web site, www.nature.org.

People are often shocked that an Army post works so hard to maintain its natural resources, Cornelius said.

"'You work on a military installation?'" he's asked. "'They care about that sort of thing?'"

Not only do officials care, but Fort Hood biologists are leaders in several fields.

One of those is the study of two endangered bird species: the black-capped vireo and the golden-cheeked warbler. Researchers are busy this time of year as the birds descend upon the post to mate.

Fort Hood is a good home for these species, Cornelius said. Private land owners would likely cut down habitat for these birds, which includes hardwood trees, Juniper and cedar. At Fort Hood this habitat is left intact, maintained by employees through cutting and controlled burns.

Warblers nest high in trees in wooded areas Army vehicles can't access. Vireos nest in clusters of low brush that is spaced out in such a way that tanks and other vehicles can maneuver around, Cornelius said.

Officials plot a plan to take care of the post's natural resources every five years. They examine species numbers and mating success rates to determine what changes need to be made to the plan. Incoming units affect that plan based on their training requirements.

Fort Hood is a post built to train units that use heavy machinery like tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Light infantry units who do a lot of work in Humvees or on foot aren't constricted as much by landscape and can train in areas typically ignored by the heavy units.

Research done on the vireo and warbler at Fort Hood has world-wide impact because the birds migrate to Mexico and South America, and scientists here are learning more about the birds and their habits than was previously known. That has also resulted in the post leading conservation efforts for the two species.

Fort Hood has 325 species of resident and migratory birds. That is half the number of bird species recorded in Texas. The branch hosts birding and plant expeditions every spring.

The post was designated in 2001 as a "globally important bird area" by the American Bird Conservancy.

"A lot (of visitors) expect military installations to be bombed-out moonscapes," said Richard Kostecke, project director for The Nature Conservancy at Fort Hood.

Not only can biologists educate people about the animal and plant life at Fort Hood, they can teach them about land management.

"You can support the mission and have the natural resources," Kostecke said.

Call it a different angle on a military installation, Cornelius said.

"We're trying to be responsible managers of the land," he said.

For more information on the Natural Resources Management Branch, call (254) 287-2885.

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