When you think of endangered species in this country, struggling to survive in their native habitats, you probably picture them on national park or U.S. Forest Service lands. But according to NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization that tracks wildlife, U.S. Defense Department properties have the highest density of threatened and endangered species of any federal land management agency. The Pentagon states that on average, military lands boast 15 threatened and endangered species per acre — nearly seven times more per acre than on U.S. Forest Service tracts.
Our nation’s military lands, however, are first and foremost dedicated to preparing for armed readiness, meaning that military exercises, such as target practice, are routine. Is this the kind of environment in which we want threatened species to play out their last-ditch efforts for survival?
A more eco-conscious U.S. military …
According to the Pentagon, the military protects roughly 420 federally listed species on more than 28 million acres. San Clemente Island, off the southern California Coast, is one such holding. This U.S. Navy-owned parcel is the site of weekly ship-to-shore, target-practice bombardments, yet the resident population of the San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike has rebounded from the brink of extinction here.
This black, gray and white songbird — which has gone from a low of 14 individuals in the 1990s to 140 today — is among many endangered species that have thrived on military lands during the past decade. San Clemente Island has even more success stories: the once-threatened San Clemente Island lizard, a subspecies of the island night lizard, which now numbers more than 20 million, is currently being considered for removal from federal listing. The island’s native fox population has grown from mere hundreds in the 1990s to more than 1,000 today. Endemic San Clemente Island sage sparrows flit through plywood models of tanks and missiles that are zeroed in on by troops but not fired upon when the birds are present. Ramps prevent beach erosion to help protect threatened western snowy plovers. Even their nests are moved to avoid tanks.
As San Clemente illustrates, security on military bases — which keeps huge tracts of terrain off-limits to most humans — has effectively turned training grounds into wildlife refuges. The existence of the bases has kept wetlands, old-growth forests and tall-grass prairies from succumbing to urban sprawl.
Recognizing the role the military can play in protecting wildlife as well as our nation’s security, the U.S. Defense Department is increasingly partnering with environmental groups to buy critical habitats that can act as buffer zones around bases. For example, in June 2013, the Army’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State announced its plan to restore prairie habitat.
In 2003, defense spending on threatened and endangered species was about $50 million. By 2012, that number had risen to $73 million, a nearly 45 percent jump within a decade.
… But being an ecological steward may not be selfless
Some environmentalists, however, don’t trust this shift by the Pentagon, pointing out that the military has a long history of seeking exemptions from environmental laws in the name of national security. The military still struggles with how to share land with some endangered wildlife, such as the desert tortoises the army relocated from Fort Irwin in California. And one of its most persistent ecological problems is at sea, where the use of navy sonar has raised widespread concerns about noise-sensitive whales and other marine mammals. Last year, a lawsuit was filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect marine mammals from noise caused by U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
Others believe that in light of past mistakes, the Pentagon has truly learned its lesson. Protecting wildlife does, in turn, protect training ranges. The more wildlife thrives, the fewer the restrictions that are imposed on military lands. On the other hand, if endangered populations decline further, the military could face being told to move training exercises out of certain areas. San Clemente Island is currently the U.S. Navy’s only ship-to-shore bombing range, but there used to be two: A former range in Vieques, Puerto Rico, was closed in 2003 after years of protests over the environmental and health effects of naval exercises. Much of Vieques is now a national wildlife refuge.
For now, the San Clemente shrike seems to be unaffected by the loud noises in its environment, even nesting in the center of the bombing range. But who knows what effects we’ll see in these birds in the future?
Do you think that with scant government funds in tough economic times that lands with resident endangered species should be left in the hands of the military? Or, once identified as hosting populations of endangered wildlife, should such properties be transferred to other management units?
Feature photo: The U.S. military may be more ecologically conscious than in the past, but recently a lawsuit was filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect marine mammals from noise caused by U.S. Navy warfare training exercises. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews