Should U.S. Military Ranges Double as Wildlife Refuges?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | September 27th, 2013 | 4 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Orca in Washington State

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 …

Old-growth trees

The existence of military bases has kept old-growth forests from succumbing to urban sprawl. ©John T. Andrews

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.

Prairie flowers

The Pentagon has learned that protecting natural habitats and wildlife does, in turn, protect training ranges. ©John T. Andrews

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?

Happy trails,


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



  1. Of course – its a no brainer.

    Ben McMullen | October 1st, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. Let the military keep their training grounds.

    As the article says: The Defense Department properties have the highest density of threatened and endangered species of any federal land management agency.

    This is not only the result of the Defence being focused on creating a good habitat for plants and animals. It is the result of the training activities that creates a diverse mosaic habitat and because the training keep the public out of the area and thereby gives the animals and plants an area without human disturbance.

    Without human disturbance? you may ask. But what about all the soldiers running around and all the shooting?
    Soldiers on a training mission are less disturbing to the wildlife than the family on a picnic.
    The family leaves trash, pick flowers, try to touch or capture small animals, their dog hunt game and usually use the same areas and thereby tramble the vegetation and scare the animals away.
    Soldiers on the other hand are trained to not leave trash, they pay no attention to plants or animals except hiding behind trees or in grass, they do not bring dogs and they use the whole area and thereby they don’t tramble the vegetation or scare the animals.
    The animals have learned that the soliders are not trying to hunt them and thereby can ignore the soldiers i a larger degree than they can ignore a family.

    What about the tanks making deep tracks in the soil and fires spontaneous started from cannonfire? These changes in habitats are just a source for more diversity. The deep tracks become waterholes to much enjoyment of frogs and the fires give room for plants that can’t grow in tall grass.

    It is because the military uses these areas, that they become rich in biodiversity. If you remove the military, I am sure that the areas in time will lose it richness.

    Naomi Hagelberg | October 2nd, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  3. Please check out the innovative plan introduced by Rep. Raul Grijavla in Arizona to protect wildlife habitat and connectivity, open space for the growing West Valley of Phoenix, and safeguard the future viability of Luke Air Force Base and the nationally critical Barry M. Goldwater Range. The “Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act of 2013″ was introduced in April and would designate approximately 950,000 acres of federal BLM lands as National Conservation Areas, Wilderness, and other special designations–helping to prevent military installations from becoming refuges of last resort for species like desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep in this part of Arizona. It’s truly innovative and broadly supported by a diverse array of local stakeholders. We are working to bring our Republican delegation members on to support the legislation. The plan also just won an award for ‘Best Project’ by the AZ Chapter of the American Planning Association:, or check out the report on conservation and AZ military installations at

    Katurah Mackay | October 4th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  4. As a former civil service biologist for a military base, I can vouch for the professionalism, creativity and environmental concern shown by civil service environmental program professionals working for the military. Many projects are contracted out to The Nature Conservancy or other organizations, but also many projects are managed in-house by environmental staff working at the many installations.

    Do not discount the contributions these professionals make to the betterment of land and species under their care. There will always be challenges to face in environmental management on military land, but there have been successes as well.

    Becky Herbig
    Certified Wildlife Biologist (The Wildlife Society)

    Becky Herbig | October 6th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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