The U.S. Air Force is known for protecting its human citizens, but it extends just as much effort protecting all living species within its land.
Hill Air Force Base owns or provides support for seven properties throughout Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, and it is the priority of the 75th Civil Engineer Group Natural Resources department to protect the wildlife in those areas and ensure the wildlife does not impede the general mission of the Air Force.
"Many Air Force bases have wildlife species that are considered endangered or threatened," said 75th CEG Wildlife/Habitat Biologist and Manager Russ Lawrence. "We actually do not have any of those, so we are considered to be lucky, because that could prohibit mission-related actions. The (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) could restrict the Air Force from using an area of land that hosts an identified endangered species."
The largest area of land Hill AFB manages is the Utah Test and Training Range, which covers approximately 2,675 square miles of ground space and hosts a wide variety of living species. Known as the largest overland safety footprint within the United States and used by several branches of the Department of Defense to enhance training and testing missions, it is imperative that each square mile of the UTTR be available toSClBsupport these missions. Diminishing the area's natural species populations could greatly inhibit those missions.
"We do have a lot of species that are at risk or of concern, however," said Lawrence. "That is one step before getting listed as an endangered species. Once a species is listed as endangered, it would give it a whole different legal classification which we would have to abide by. Our job, as natural resource professionals for the Air Force and contracted specialists, is to keep these species off the endangered species list so the military can continue doing everything they are doing now."
Such species at risk that live at the UTTR include ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, kit foxes and leopard lizards.
The natural resources team put safeguards in effect years ago to ensure that military missions would not harm these or any other species that roam the desert-like terrain. One such safeguard is using the animal's natural instinct to frequent a stable water source and thereby placing manmade water sources far from active range targets.
Over the years, the team constructed 15 guzzler watering systems at various points around the inactive training areas of the UTTR. A guzzler consists of large pieces of corrugated metal roofing that are mounted to a frame at a slant to capture rainfall. At the lowest part of the slant is a rain gutter and downspout that guides rainfall to an underground storage tank. The tank feeds the rainwater to a metal trough, or guzzler, which provides a consistent level of drinking water to animals via a floating lever that controls the amount of water provided from the underground storage tank.
Also mounted near the guzzlers are motion-activated cameras that help biologists document which animals visit the guzzlers.
"We've been surprised about how much wildlife is out there once we put the remote cameras in place next to the guzzlers," said Aaron Bronson, a Geographic Information Systems analyst with the natural resources team. Bronson helps maintain the data systems which have compiled approximately 10 years of field research.
"The only reason we know there are bobcats out at the UTTR is because our cameras have caught them drinking from the guzzlers. We have never been able to see one in person."
The natural resources team uses many different methods and equipment to gather and sort data collected from the lands Hill AFB maintains. Some methods require use of sophisticated technology, such as global positioning systems and tablets, and other methods may be as simple as using one's eyes and ears.
An interesting observation the natural resources team has found is that a majority of military activity does not harm the animals. In fact, the largest threats to the species at risk are changes in habitat like the invasion of noxious weeds that overtake the natural terrain.
The natural resources team has devoted a lot of energy to eliminate the weed threat this year, as the weeds not only harm the at-risk species, but the weeds also hinder military training missions.
"When we look at photos of places in Afghanistan and other places in the Middle East, there are shrubs and trees that look like the junipers and desert shurbs that we have in the mountains at the UTTR," said Lawrence. "From a Natural Resources perspective, we want to create a natural habitat that would look like a scene the Airmen would encounter (in the area of responsibility)."
A noxious weed known as cheatgrass is taking over many areas of the UTTR, depleting water from the natural fauna and increasing the risk of wildfire. The catch is that while the natural plants will perish in the fire, the cheatgrass will actually perpetuate after a wildfire.
"Cheatgrass is an invasive weed that thrives when there is a fire," said Lawrence. "First, it will out-compete the native plants for water throughout the year, then once a fire hits, the native species will be gone and the cheatgrass will grow back even thicker. We work with the 388th Fighter Wing and 75th CEG Range Squadron to place firebreaks and green strips on the range to meet both the needs of the mission and the needs of wildfire control."
Green strips include plants that are fire resistant and remain green all yearround. "So what a pilot would see is vegetation rather than a large cleared spot to give a better visual of the mission," he added.
Lawrence said his natural resources team is using farming techniques to make the land more conducive to the natural habitat.
"We have guys out there right now disking up the ground to till under the seeds from the noxious weeds to prevent them from germinating as much. We will then drill or broadcast seeds of plants that are fire resistant. Some are native and some are not native plants, but eventually we will be able to plant more of the native plants with the nonnative plants and not create a big disturbance."
"Our goal is to have no net loss of mission requirements while protecting the environment," Lawrence said. "It can happen. Since I have worked here for the last three years, I have been amazed at how we coexist with the mission and the environment. The overall impact the mission has on the environment is not as big as people might think."