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Warblers, vireos, and tanks: Army tries new approach

A novel program enlists civilian landowners in a bid to preserve habitat of endangered birds.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2007


The rumble of tanks and the blasts of exploding shells at Fort Hood Army base seem not to perturb the golden-cheeked warbler or the blackcapped vireo.

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The endangered birds, in fact, are thriving in the oak and juniper groves in lesser-used parts of the sprawling base. But as private land surrounding Fort Hood is developed, reducing nesting habitat, the Army is concerned that the base will become the bird's last haven – putting areas needed for tank training off limits forevermore.

Enter nearby rancher Clay McClellan, a veteran of the "warbler wars" of the 1990s and an unlikely hero in the ongoing story of an endangered species' quest for survival. He has signed a contract pledging to preserve some warbler-friendly acreage on his property, and the Army is paying him to do it.

"Back a few years ago when this came up, we just got bulldozers out and started wiping it out," Mr. McClellan says of warbler habitat. "But these days, the government is taking a friendlier approach toward us."

Getting paid to be a protector is a big reason McClellan and 10 other landowners have put 1,400 acres of prime habitat into a fledgling program that, scientists and the Army hope, will prompt warblers to take up residence off-base. If it works – still a big "if" – not only would the Army get to use more of Fort Hood for training rather than for nesting, but the Bush administration would likely apply this market-based model of species protection to other endangered creatures nationwide.

"We think this system will do a lot for the warbler and begin changing thinking in this part of the country about endangered species," says Steve Manning of the Texas Watershed Management Foundation, a local group with ranching interests that helped devise the program. "In the long run,... our system could become a national model."

Military houses protected species

The Army's interest in the experiment – called the Recovery Credit System (RCS) – extends beyond Fort Hood. Almost 100 military installations are home to at least 150 federally protected species. As nearby land is bulldozed and developed, the bases bear "a disproportionate burden for critical habitat management to support species recovery," according to a recent RAND Corp. study commissioned by the US Department of Defense to look at readiness.

"Tank training is our bread and butter, something we have to do," says John Cornelius, chief of natural resources management at Fort Hood who discovered the warbler there and fought to save it. "Over the long run, we think this RCS system will provide a safety net for us and for the birds."

There's no arguing that Fort Hood's existing program to help the endangered birds has paid off. For 15 years it has preserved shrubs and trees the birds prefer – and both species have rebounded. About 5,400 warbler pairs were nesting at Fort Hood this spring, more than twice the 2,000 pairs the federal recovery plan mandates.

Now, however, the Army is reducing the birds' "core" habitat on the 217,000-acre base. In 2003, about 66,000 acres – nearly one-third of Fort Hood – had restrictions to help the warbler and the vireo. In 2005, however, the Army sought a new biological opinion from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the birds' recovery. As a result, warbler habitat where tank movements are restricted was reduced to fewer than 10,000 acres today.

Warblers and vireo populations "appear stable," says Richard Kostecke, a project scientist with the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group that has long overseen the bird recovery plan at the base.