Celebrating biodiversity at APG

A kit, or baby fox, is seen in a grass field on Aberdeen Proving Ground. The ideal habitat for red fox includes grasslands, woodlands and wetlands -- all of which can be found on APG land. | U.S. Army photo by Joe Ondek

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — We are no longer waiting for Punxsutawney Phil to tell us if winter is over. His groundhog cousins here at APG are awake and busy enjoying their fresh green surroundings, and every other color of spring, just as we are.

Many of his Pennsylvania brethren of our species are driving down hill to the Bay to prepare for catching the fish and crabs who are also awakening from their winter doldrums. Our sunny days are now long enough to get home from work with enough light left in the sky to slip in a quick paddle, cast a few lures, or to fire up a grill. Mowing, if we must, can wait until the weekend.

The Iris prismatica, or Slender Blue Flag, is a Maryland state endangered plant. | U.S. Army photo by Deidre DeRoia, USAG APG

All around we witness the re-emergence of leaves, flowers and all the accompanying critters that slept out of sight, or headed out of town for winter. As we witness the bounty of nature flower again on the lands and waters of APG, it is also a month to celebrate Endangered Species Day on May 19.

Biodiversity hot spot

APG has been called an east coast “hot spot” of biodiversity because of a history that includes a combination of thoughtful stewardship, benevolent neglect, or just geographic serendipity.

Part of that thoughtful stewardship has been the dedicated efforts of natural resource managers within the Directorate of Public Works, Department of Defense leadership guidance, and Federal legislation designed to protect America’s living assets “and the ecosystems upon which they depend”.

In 1972 President Richard Nixon called upon Congress to develop legislation toward preventing the accelerated extinction of species and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973. It is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. For more than four decades now, we have increasingly recognized the wisdom of conserving not only those threatened species, but also the diverse ecosystems in which they live and that help support all life on earth, including ours.

Endangered Species Act

The initial added cost and inconvenience sometimes entailed will likely be seen by future generations as a small investment with lasting returns. We especially witness some of those returns this time of year as flora and fauna re-emerge from their cold weather rest.

Anyone over a few decades old (present company included with years to spare) Some may remember when the mighty American Bald Eagle, a national symbol since 1782, was disappearing and endangered nationwide. Sightings were rare in the Upper Chesapeake Bay in the 1970s, but today young and old can see them daily right here at APG (and almost take them for granted.)

The ESA paid off for the eagle and it has recovered so well that it was delisted in 2007.

The American Bald Eagle was delisted as an Endangered Species in 2007. Countless bald eagles call APG home due to miles of undisturbed shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay | APG News file photo

Pesticides were a specific threat to some non-target organisms like the eagles but many other species were disappearing, largely due to loss of habitat. Habitat is the home of an animal and niche is his or her “profession” in that landscape (or waterscape). The interconnected organisms, their homes, and their niches form what we call an ecosystem.

Areas where the ecosystems are similar in content and function are known as ecoregions. Ecosystem level management is now the approach of the Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans (INRMP’s) that every installation has had to develop since 1989. Individual species protection is still very important, especially for species currently threatened or endangered with extinction, but restoring and protecting whole native ecosystems provides recognized benefits for all, and ideally long before the situation becomes critical for any single species.

The Department of Defense publishes “Conserving Biodiversity on Military Lands” and it convincingly makes the case for protecting all native species for both the Nation’s and the military’s best long-term interests. It is available online (http://www.dodbiodiversity.org/) and is a reassuring tome for anyone concerned about the nearly 30 million acres managed by the DOD.

Spotted turtles, identifiable by a variable number of yellow or orange spots on its shell, can be found on APG. Its habitat includes a wide variety of shallow wetlands, including wet meadows, freshwater marshes, bogs, swamps, small ponds, ditches, small woodland streams, Delmarva Bays and tidally influenced brackish streams. | U.S. Navy photo by Chris Petersen, Naval Support Activity Annex Virginia

APG ecoregions

There are four main ecoregions that intersect the lands and waters of APG. Within these temperate forests, coastal plains, lowlands, and tidal marshes of our Mid-Atlantic coastal position, APG hosts diverse habitats and thus a diverse population of native flora and fauna, and both terrestrial and aquatic species of interest.

We have no known federally listed species here, however, several listed by the State of Maryland as rare, threatened, or endangered have been found at APG. As with animals, plant species can be listed or delisted over time if their status worsens (e.g., rusty-patched bumble bee) or improves (e.g., the American Bald Eagle) elsewhere.

Currently, three federally-listed species likely may live within the terrestrial and aquatic borders of APG: Atlantic sturgeon (there was a caviar industry in the Chesapeake long ago), Shortnose sturgeon, and Rusty-patch bumble bee. The Maryland-listed Short-eared owl is seen here during fall migration. Burning and mowing open grasslands benefits both mission activities and these owls.

The Northern long-eared bat, the Monarch butterfly, the Spotted turtle, the Wood turtle, the Northern red-bellied cooter, the tricolored bat, and the Little brown bat also are, or may be, found at APG and are listed, or may be listed in the near future. In the meantime, proper restoration or conservation and protection of the many healthy native ecosystems found at APG will help sustain many species for us and for future generations.

The Bald Eagle matters, and few Americans (now that Ben Franklin the turkey lover is no longer with us) would be so bold to disagree or request justification for its protection in a room of patriots.

Natural Resource Management Plans

Birds perch on the back of a deer on Aberdeen Proving Ground. | U.S. Army photo by Joe Ondek

The ESA has undoubtedly played a role in bringing back the eagles. Likewise it seems, successful protection for the lesser long-nosed bat may lead to it being delisted soon. It is a pollinator of agave plants (which are the source of tequila) and has been part of the natural resource management plans of the Army’s Fort Huachuca and other Federal agencies in the Southwest.

Some of the endangered plants are beautiful to look at and some hold promise as sources of new cancer pharmaceuticals like the Pacific yew that grows at Naval Air Station Jim Creek, Washington.

Undiscovered potential

Likewise, few would question why it is important to protect the native bees that are essential for pollination of so many of our food crops, help support our agricultural industry, and thus contribute so many dollars to our economy.

The genetic treasure chests of potential new medicines, or an enormous contribution to our economy and food security, or even our emotional attachment to a symbolic animal, allow us to easily defend the protection of some animals and plants.

And few would have predicted that even some very unpleasant venomous creatures, from stinging bees to snakes, are starting to show promise as sources of potent antibacterial, antiviral, or anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals.

It may, however, be hard for us to currently appreciate or imagine some great extrinsic value to humans of many of the lesser known “weeds and critters” that also emerge in spring. Some of those are even shunned by natural resource managers that understand that when they are exotic invasive species, and are damaging native ecosystems, they should be removed. But if they are known to be native species to the area, they should probably be tolerated if not embraced. And that is quite the point for appreciating and celebrating the ESA this time of year.

A wood duck swims in one of the many waterways on Aberdeen Proving Ground. | U.S. Army photo by Joe Ondek

Whether they have obvious extrinsic human value, or if you believe that all living organisms have some intrinsic right to grow on this planet, native ecosystem conservation benefits both views.

Complex, diverse ecosystems

Wildlife biologists are still trying to unravel and document the many apparent indirect benefits, from the return of aspen trees and beavers to song birds and fish, of the grey wolf protection program in Yellowstone. It is an example of how scientists still struggle to fully understand the complex interconnections within our diverse ecosystems.

In the meantime, restoring and protecting native ecosystems seems a prudent approach towards supporting the sustainability of our natural resources. This is perhaps why the early naturalist John Muir remarked: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

APG natural resources managers have a long history of continually coordinating the natural infrastructure stewardship that supports and sustains the Army’s testing and training mission every day. Working with partners from APG tenant organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, APG DPW personnel developed and coordinated our Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP) as a roadmap to the future for APG natural resources management.

For more information about the natural resources at APG, contact: Mr. John Wrobel at john.g.wrobel.civ@mail.mil

By John Leader, APG Directorate of Public Works, Natural Resources Branch

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