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Eglin Air Force Base Protects Wildlife

A Gopher Tortoise on its way to Eglin AFB, hatching an escape attempt. Photo courtesy of Eglin AFB.

When most people think of the Air Force, they picture high-speed aeronautical maneuvers or secret missions overseas. But did you know that the Air Force, as well as other branches of the military, are doing really cool things around the U.S.? On military bases all over the country, the Department of Defense is leading conservation efforts. By protecting the natural beauty and biodiversity of this nation, the military is also preserving some of our most important resources.

At Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, wildlife conservation is a major part of their mission, and with over 464,000 acres of land to protect, they’ve got a pretty big task ahead of them. “At one point, we were touted to have the second-highest population of life, diversity on the planet, behind only the Amazon River Basin” Mr. Michael Spaits, Eglin Environmental Public Affairs, said in an interview with Consensus. “The commanders that come here understand that if they aren’t good stewards of the environment that will impact the mission. It has impacted missions in the past, so it’s in their best interest to be advocates for the work that’s being done.” With habitats that support everything from sea turtles to freshwater salamanders to endangered woodpeckers, the mission of good stewardship is in great hands.

The largest threat facing the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker was the elimination of its natural habitat, old-growth longleaf pines. In the south-eastern United States, the longleaf pine forests were largely replaced by loblolly pines on tree plantations, but the less dense wood just wasn’t suitable habitat for the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. The woodpecker, a keystone species that other animals rely on for their own habitat, fell onto the endangered species list, as longleaf pines became more scarce. At Eglin, they know how important this animal is to the longleaf pine ecosystem, so they began to rebuild the habitat that had been destroyed over decades of tree farming.

Today, Eglin operates revenue-generating, sustainable forestry to regrow the natural longleaf ecosystem. All of the funds generated from the timber sales, go right back into conservation efforts. “They look like more regular timber operations, but the whole goal behind them is to restore a system to the longleaf pine ecosystem, which is what was predominant here years and years ago.” Mr. Bruce Hagedorn, 96th Civil Engineer Group Natural Resources Branch chief, said in an interview. “We’ll plant 750,000 longleaf pine seedlings a year, so we’re converting older plantations from the 50s and 60s that didn’t grow very well or had off-site species, we’re converting them back to longleaf.” Although simply growing the trees wasn’t enough to keep the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker thriving, they needed old-growth, heartwood for their habitat, so the team at Eglin got creative and carved out special burrows into hundreds of trees across the property to serve as potential habitats for the species. What’s the result? 

Since these efforts began in 1995, the species population has swelled to a size that they are no longer endangered, and they will soon be off the threatened list. Eglin has so many broods of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, that they actually donate dozens of juvenile birds to nearby forests and wildlife conservancies. Eglin recently received the Department of Defense’s Environmental Excellence award for its efforts to get the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker off the endangered species list, and since then Eglin has well-surpassed its recovery goal for the species. The population is doing so well, that they are even in the process of tapering off their initiatives so that they can focus on other areas of conservation. “This year we actually did not give any birds away, and that’s because the populations worldwide are doing so well that they don’t need our birds anymore.” Mrs. Kathy Gault, the 96th Civil Engineer Group Endangered Species Biologist, said in an interview. “We think that is still going to continue for other populations but at this time Eglin is not going to be doing it because the other populations are doing so well.” 

The Okaloosa Darter is almost entirely endemic to Eglin AFB. Photo courtesy of Eglin AFB

When the Okaloosa Darter, a highly endemic species of fish, landed on the endangered species list in the early 90’s most people thought the animal would slowly go extinct. However, the servicemen and women at Eglin stepped up and developed an erosion control program to address the greatest threat to that endangered species. The program is still in effect today, and the team at Eglin actually revived the tributaries and streams that serve as the Okaloosa Darter’s habitat. In the 27 years since the species has been downgraded from endangered to threatened. With over 90 percent of the animal’s habitat within Eglin’s land, the Okaloosa Darter’s resurgence is almost entirely due to the efforts of Eglin Air Force Base. “The Regulatory Agency reclassified it from endangered threatened and now within the next year or so they’re pushing towards taking that species off the list altogether,” said Mr. Hagedorn. “So that’s just a testament to all the hard work we’ve been doing over the course of the last 27 years to protect the habitat, and actually improve and increase the number of linear miles of streams that the species can inhabit we’ve actually created. “

Some of Eglin’s newer initiatives are to keep animals off of the endangered species list entirely, such as the sweeping conservation efforts they are making to preserve the south-eastern United States’ gopher tortoise population. The gopher tortoise, another keystone species in the longleaf pine ecosystem, is not officially threatened, but the team at Eglin saw the population decline. So they called up their pals at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and made a proactive decision to keep them off of the endangered species list entirely. Through a Conference Assessment, Eglin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services set a population goal for Gopher Tortoises of 6,000 with at least 18 minimum viable populations. “We’re willing to take in and repopulate Eglin’s 464,000 acres with as many tortoises as we can get our hands on and a minimum of 6000.” 

By avoiding the gopher tortoise landing on the endangered species list, Eglin is saving the 23 other military installations from thousands of hours of wildlife assessment, and they are helping a keystone species thrive. As renewable energy developers build installations in Florida, Eglin worked to rescue the gopher tortoise habitat located on that land, while providing support for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a not-for-profit regulatory organization. Through this Memorandum of Agreement, renewable energy developers give the gopher tortoises on land that will be developed to Eglin and pay a fee to the US Fish and Wildlife Services. In this way, renewable energy developers are saved time and money, Eglin receives a larger population of gopher tortoises, and the agency that enforces the Endangered Species Act receives additional funding. In addition to being a win, win, win, this agreement ensures that dozens of bases in the US can complete their mission without worrying about a precious keystone species.

The servicemen and servicewomen at Eglin see these efforts as part of their patriot duty and part of the reason they serve. “There are numerous reasons to manage for the benefit of not just the endangered species but all the species that occur within the ecosystems that exist on Eglin and any other installation. First and foremost it’s the right thing to do.” Mr. Hagedorn said. “We’re helping to defend the country, and biodiversity is one of the things that make the country worth defending.”

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