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

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.

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.

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"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.

But the core habitat reduction leads critics of the plan to charge that RCS is mainly designed to get the Army off the warbler hook. RCS offers only fragmented habitat spread out over vast areas, compared with the base's stable, concentrated program, says Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Offering 10-, 20-, and 30-year landowner commitments – instead of perpetual easements – raises questions about fluctuating habitat, he says.

Finally, there is no requirement that numbers of birds actually increase.

"They would have you believe this system will result in a net increase in warbler numbers, but that's highly unlikely," he says. "The only reason this program exists is because the military is about to nuke the best warbler habitat in the state of Texas."

Still, the RCS program is not without environmental credentials. Environmental Defense, the Washington-based environmental group, has signed on to design it. Texas A&M University and state wildlife researchers will do field research.

"It's a first-of-its-kind system," says David Wolfe, senior scientist at Environmental Defense who is designing the evolving RCS system. "We've got fulltime management and monitoring. So far, we've been surprised at its popularity. We can't keep up with demand."

That demand speaks to a dramatic change in attitude from the old days. Then, some landowners in the area, fearing government intrusion over the endangered birds, adopted the motto: "Shoot, shovel, and shut up."

Low bidder wins the contract

Other programs, too, pay people to help preserve the environment. What makes RCS different are its focus on endangered species and the fact that it is market-based, says Dr. Wolfe. If McClellan, for instance, is the low bidder, he is then selected to save trees and terrain the birds like and to slash brush they don't.

In coming months, the RCS system will begin trading "conservation unit" credits for saving key habitat. If warbler habitat on the base were to be damaged by one of the frequent brush fires, base commanders would be able to purchase RCS credits instead of cutting training to meet Endangered Species Act requirements.

If RCS catches on, some worry the additional private habitat could, in the end, weaken the bird populations by allowing Fort Hood to set aside even less warbler acreage.

To Mr. Suckling, though, the RCS program's fatal flaw is its emphasis on keeping detailed landowner data secret, preventing groups like his from ensuring public accountability.

RCS defenders envision 40,000 or more acres and scores of landowners in the system within a few years. But that won't happen without privacy of individual land data, says Mr. Manning of the Texas Watershed Management Foundation.

"We are doing everything openly and aboveboard," Manning says. "But landowners here are concerned about privacy. So it's a balancing act."

Wolfe notes, as well, that the program includes extensive on-site monitoring and management oversight.

Better for landowners than for birds?

Still, other experts aren't satisfied. Jim Bergan, director of science and stewardship for the Nature Conservancy in Texas, has direct supervisory responsibility for the Fort Hood species recovery project. While he is hopeful the RCS will work, he says it currently serves the needs of landowners more than it does the endangered birds.

"It all goes back to doing what's right by the US taxpayers and trying to incentivize landowners," he says. "It's certainly possible to make the program too landowner-friendly – and that's just not right. You've got to show benefits at the end of the day for the warbler."

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