From camera traps to tank tracks: Hokies manage conservation work on military landscapes
A team of research scientists from the Conservation Management Institute (CMI) housed in the College of Natural Resources and Environment is conducting multiple conservation projects on a unique landscape in Virginia’s Piedmont region: an active military base.
At the Fort Pickett Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center in Blackstone, Virginia, recent projects include a bird survey conducted across a range of habitats, stream research focusing on rare freshwater mussels and threatened Roanoke logperch, studies of bat and squirrel populations, and a comprehensive effort to conserve an endangered species of sumac.
These projects exemplify both CMI’s long history of collaborative research as well as the modern conservation science it applies to real-time challenges in a critical natural landscape.
Multiple uses, exponential challenges
Though it seems counterintuitive, military installations are among the most well-managed landscapes in the United States, having a higher density of endangered or threatened plant and animal species than national parks and forests.
Located about 60 miles southwest of Richmond, Fort Pickett traces its history as a military installation to World War II. Now operated by the Virginia Army National Guard, the center has facilities to provide training for both military and non-military personnel. The post is used by active and reserve component military units from all services, as well as organizations like the various federal law enforcement agencies, the Virginia State Police, and even Canadian forces. These personnel conduct small arms live-fire, combat skills practice and maneuver tactics, and even heavy-weapons training involving tanks and other armored fighting vehicles on the landscape.
At the same time, the installation is a resource for Virginia residents, who can access the numerous ponds, lakes, and forests that make up a significant portion of the property’s 40,000-plus acres.
“We are something of an open post,” said Lt. Col. James Shaver Jr., chief of plans, training, and security at Fort Pickett. “We have an active recreation program, so Virginia citizens and others can come on post and get permission to hunt, fish, kayak, and cut firewood.”
The challenge of managing for contrasting roles while satisfying state and federal mandates for the preservation of a sizable ecosystem makes military bases among the most challenging locations for conservation scientists to work.
“A military base like Fort Pickett has all the same uses as a national forest, with the added challenge of having to be a training site for the military,” explained Verl Emrick, a research scientist with CMI who has been conducting conservation work at the site for more than two decades. “What we provide facilities like Fort Pickett is the most up-to-date information about how to best maintain their landscape so that they can make informed management decisions.”
That information includes monitoring endangered wildlife species that call the base home as well as documenting the occurrences and distribution of threatened plant species on the property.
“This area is an important wildlife habitat,” said Kenneth Oristaglio, Fort Pickett’s natural resources manager. “We’re currently completing a survey of animal species, and we’re seeing camera captures of black bear cubs, turkey, deer, and bobcats. We have four eagle nests that we know of and probably more that we haven’t documented.”
Scott Klopfer, who has served as director of CMI since 2009, said that having a long working relationship with clients like Fort Pickett is critical to helping them reach conservation priorities. “We’ve been working at Fort Pickett for 20 years. From a natural resources perspective, that’s enough time to gain a clear picture of what is on the landscape and start enacting changes that will provide positive outcomes.”
That work is just one example of the broader efforts that the CMI is making to enhance conservation efforts around the globe. Working with a range of partners in the U.S. and overseas, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey, CMI is engaged in ecosystems management, biodiversity conservation, and geospatial mapping projects to better protect natural resources.
“CMI is a significant contributor to the teaching, research, and outreach efforts of our department,” said Joel Snodgrass, head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “Our faculty often collaborate with CMI scientists on projects in synergistic fashion, CMI projects frequently engage undergraduates in experiential learning activities, and graduate students have their work enhanced through collaboration on CMI projects. All of these interactions allow us to better serve our stakeholders and the university’s land-grant mission.”
From freshwater mussel surveys to fire management
Starting at the downstream boundaries of the base, Research Associate Caitlin Carey dons a snorkel and mask and starts her journey upstream, looking for evidence of hard-to-find freshwater mussels.
“Freshwater mussels provide a wealth of essential ecological services required to support healthy freshwater ecosystems,” said Carey, who has over 10 years of experience monitoring freshwater mussel populations in the Tennessee River Basin and Atlantic Slope. “There’s a specific interest in reassessing the status of the Atlantic pigtoe mussel as well as identifying whether the federally endangered dwarf wedgemussel or the threatened yellow lance mussel are present in the Nottoway River.”
In addition to collecting live individuals and shell materials to identify which mussels are present, Carey collects DNA samples to confirm species identification and to provide supporting materials for other research projects.
Such collaboration is par for the course among the researchers in the Conservation Management Institute.
“We’re all research scientists,” noted Senior Research Associate Michael St. Germain, “so there are a lot of instances where we help and collaborate on each other’s projects. We’re a close-knit team.”
St. Germain led the recent bird survey, which was a year-round effort to understand the species that exist across the different habitats represented at Fort Pickett — from bottomland hardwood forested wetlands to deciduous forests, coniferous woodlands, and grasslands — to provide information for the base’s Integrated Natural Resources Management plan, a roadmap that allows military installations to stay in compliance with federal laws.
For researchers like Carey and St. Germain, working on a military base offers surprising opportunities to access a broad range of wildlife and a chance to observe and try out landscape maintenance processes that were once commonplace in the region.
“In the southeastern United States, there was a history of frequent, low-intensity fires that would help to maintain the ecosystems in the Piedmont region,” said St. Germain, who has worked with numerous military instillations in his career. “As the landscape in the region moved towards agriculture or suburban development, fires disappeared from the landscape, but Fort Pickett utilizes prescribed burns as a management tool to reduce fuel load, minimizing impacts of training and naturally occurring wildfires while supporting their management objectives.”
The utilization of fire as a management tool has allowed at least one threatened plant species to thrive on the base. Michaux’s sumac — a federally listed endangered species that requires fire-maintained landscapes to grow and spread — grows naturally on the site, and researchers hope that understanding more about why it has succeeded at Fort Pickett will aid recovery efforts elsewhere.
“All endangered species have a recovery goal that they need to reach,” said Emrick, who is leading the sumac project. “The installation, along with a nearby property, have some of the highest populations of Michaux’s sumac in the U.S., and we’re working to assess how many plants are currently on the landscape and how we can help reach species recovery goals.”
Experiential learning finds real-world applications
Marissa Guill, a master’s student researching the distribution of fox squirrels in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions of Virginia, said that conducting research on an active military base is a study in contrasts.
“It’s interesting conducting fieldwork on a landscape where people are doing combat training exercises,” said Guill, who is using nest boxes and cameras to monitor what squirrel species are darting among the trees. “Both groups benefit: The military is getting help managing the land to the highest standard, and we have a chance to do research in a unique habitat.”
The work that the Conservation Management Institute does with partners is frequently hands-on, with a focus on solving specific challenges.
“As Virginia Tech moves towards a model that prioritizes experiential learning, we have a role to play in providing meaningful opportunities to do direct, applied conservation work,” Klopfer explained. “We feel like we’re a great place for students to have a chance to get real-time experiences in the field.”
The presence of researchers and graduate students means that the base can share the story of their conservation work with the broader public.
“We work hard to be good stewards of our environment,” Lt. Col. Shaver noted. “Any time we can get researchers and students to tell the story about what’s going on is positive and having researchers and students who can go out and become ambassadors for the work we’re doing is one of the ways that CMI helps us in our outreach efforts.”
For Emrick, the benefits of working collaboratively to maintain critical ecosystems outweigh the challenges.
“This work can be daunting, but it’s a great professional challenge,” he said. “There’s all these aspects you don’t think about with other natural resource areas, and when you get it right it is an incredible professional accomplishment.”
Written by David Fleming