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Military's role in species conservation grows

Posted: Sunday, May 21, 2000

BARRY M. GOLDWATER RANGE, Ariz. (AP) -- Bryan Morrill is methodically scanning back and forth, peering at the badly rutted paved road. Suddenly, he slams on the brakes.

''Did you see it?'' he says excitedly, pointing to what looks like little more than a piece of brush growing in sand.

He carefully swings the pickup truck's door open and creeps toward the brush, pointing to its shady base. A tiny rough triangular tail is barely visible. It's owner, a flat-tailed horned lizard, had just darted from the road and hidden itself in the sand.

For Morrill, this is part of the daily routine -- looking for lizards on the road, recording their favorite ground temperatures and performing other reconnaissance for, of all government agencies, the military.

Once responsible for nothing more than defending U.S. interests, the Department of Defense is increasingly being asked to also defend something else: wildlife.

The Defense Department is responsible for overseeing roughly 25 million acres of U.S. soil, and so far, 220 federally recognized endangered and threatened species have been identified on that land. (The flat-tailed horned lizard had been considered for federal listing, but the military and other government agencies agreed to conserve the lizard without the official listing.)

''We just kind of woke up one morning and found ourselves stewards of a lot of endangered species,'' said Ron Pearce, the Marine Corps range management director in Yuma.

The Defense Department spent roughly $27.6 million on threatened and endangered animals and plants, according to figures being submitted to Congress for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

A study by the Nature Conservancy found that Defense Department land contains the highest number of federally protected species per acre of any federal agency's holdings.

Pearce and others say part of the reason is that military installations have become de facto wildlife refuges, the sole patches of open land surrounded by urban civilian development.

In the West, the military also controls vast stretches of land like the Barry M. Goldwater Range, said William Millan of the Nature Conservancy.

The flat-tailed horned lizards, which are only found in the western Sonoran Desert, live primarily on the Goldwater range, a 2.7 million-acre combat practice range shared by the Air Force and the Marine Corps.

Only one paved road runs from the range's edge to the targets used by the Marines. And though it seems like little more than a pothole-pocked strip to the military personnel and civilians that drive it, it's something of a Club Med for the cold-blooded lizards in spring.

As the pavement heats up and gets warmer than the sand, the round reptiles, which can grow to be 4 1/2 inches in length, sunbathe on the road -- a life-threatening pursuit for the lizards when trucks drive through.

That's why Morrill, the flat-tailed horned lizard coordinator for the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, religiously records roadway sightings of the protected lizards and the temperatures they prefer. ''In June, July and August, we get 100 degrees and the people leave. The lizards love it,'' he said.

The range managers try to determine when the prime lizard sunbathing hours are so they can keep traffic off the range road during those times, he said.

Military personnel who drive the road are warned to watch out for the spiky headed lizards and are given business-card sized leaflets with the lizard's photo and the message, ''Don't tread on me!''

Range managers have even tried experiments to see if they could fence the lizards away from the road. Morrill said they found that if the holes in the fence were small, the lizards simply crawl over the fences. Bigger holes in the fence trapped the lizards halfway through, sometimes killing them. Morrill said he also found that brush and sand would build up against the fences, creating natural ladders for the lizards to climb over.

All this for a lizard -- on a bombing range?

''Certainly, this has evolved. This has not been traditionally thought of as the military mission,'' Doug Ripley, natural resources manager at Air Force headquarters, said of the military's environmental sensitivity. ''We blow stuff up. But (conservation) truly is a part of it. It's an important part of it.''

Still, not everyone is convinced the military is doing enough.

Environmentalists like Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity concede the military has achieved a few environmental successes, but he said it is still not doing enough to protect the wildlife on its land.

''They are probably doing more than they were, but that has to be taken in the context that until recently, they paid zero attention and the plight of some of the species we're talking about has gotten so much worse,'' Galvin said.

He points to low-level flights, devegetation and storage of hazardous materials.

''They have a huge legacy of pollution,'' Galvin said. ''Rhetorically, they've changed their tune, but we haven't seen that much on the ground.''

End ADV for May 20-21



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