Biologist Adrian Wolf searches the ground for something camouflaged in the dry prairie grass. Then he spots it: a baby streaked horned lark.
Wolf’s hands tremble as he puts a tiny silver identification band on its leg.
“I have an endangered species little life in my hand,” he says, and then places the bird back in its nest.
Only about 2,000 streaked horned larks are left on the planet. Wolf is trying to prevent the native Northwest songbirds from going extinct. But that’s not an easy task considering the dangers nearby.
These larks live on the Northwest's largest military base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just outside Tacoma. A few miles from the baby bird's nest, Army Lt. Col. J.D. Williams is training his battalion of soldiers to fire heavy artillery.
“You can’t just show up to remote locations and expect to know what you’re doing,” says Williams, commander of the 37th Field Artillery Regiment 1st Battalion.
Firing heavy artillery takes a battery of nine soldiers working with a remote crew that spots a far-off target and relays coordinates. The shells they fire fly 6 miles through the air.
This kind of training, Williams says, can’t be simulated.
“We need space so that I can shoot something,” Williams says, “and I can observe it and make those soldiers better artillery men.”
Artillery training requires hundreds of undeveloped acres; the same kind of wild land that streaked horned larks need.
It may seem impossible that larks would be able to coexist with artillery-firing soldiers. But JBLM’s existence has actually helped the endangered lark, by defending the region’s vanishing prairies from development.
“This is the irony, of this place,” Wolf says. “These military bases are the last refuges of fantastic habitat that is left in really around the country.”
The Last Best Habitat
The U.S. Department of Defense manages more than 28 million acres, an area the size of Pennsylvania. That land provides habitat to more than 400 threatened or endangered species — almost four times more than the National Park Service.
These animals used to be found from British Columbia to southern Oregon. But thanks to the growth of cities, suburbs and farms, their range has contracted to a few thousand acres — much of it on the base. Under the Endangered Species Act, base officials are required to consult with the state and federal Fish and Wildlife services to manage threatened and endangered species.
It’s Paul Steucke’s job to figure out how to train soldiers at JBLM without killing endangered species.
“We aren’t looking to trade one for another,” says Steucke, the base’s environmental division chief. “I want to make sure that our service members can get their job done, but in the process of getting their job done what we have isn't destroyed.”
The base pays for biologists like Wolf from the Center for Natural Lands Management to do conservation work here. The biologists gather GPS data on lark nest locations and track young birds when they're most vulnerable.
Base officials give this information to people like Lt. Col. Williams so they can incorporate it into training exercises and make sure his soldiers don’t bomb their nests. Steucke says in some cases the nest locations become part of the training; soldiers treat them the way they would hospitals or schools on a real-life battlefield: as things that should not be blown up.
When a battalion is done with a training exercise, base officials inspect the land.
“They ensure that we have done all that they told us to do, and that we didn’t destroy the land, or pollute the environment, or harm any endangered or critical species,” Williams says.
To help restore the region's prairies, the U.S. Army contributes financially to conservation organizations like Center for Natural Lands Management to buy land adjacent to the 90,000-acre base and replant it with native grasses and flowers. More prairie habitat off base could reduce pressure on the military to accommodate endangered species that depend on JBLM.
Are these efforts making a difference for the larks? Biologists say yes. Since they began monitoring the JBLM larks, populations throughout the base have remained stable or increased. There still aren’t as many streaked horned larks here as there were a decade ago, but in the last year biologists found no evidence of any larks dying from JBLM military activities.
“We have implemented these communication measures with the military and there’s evidence that it’s having an impact,” says Gary Slater, avian ecologist for the Center for Natural Lands Management.
The next step, Slater says, is to figure out how to protect streaked horned larks during the first weeks of life when they are most vulnerable. Biologists are trying to learn more about how far they travel from the nest in this stage. They started putting tiny radio-locating transmitters on young larks. Biologists hope this detailed information will help them develop recommendations for additional measures the military can take.
JBLM officials say their efforts to be environmentally friendly don’t end with trying to protect endangered species and restore native habitats. In more than 30 years of working for the base, Steucke says he’s witnessed a shift toward going beyond doing the bare minimum to comply with regulations.
“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says I’m going to just obey the laws today, that’s my goal,” Steucke says. “That’s a pretty low bar. Sustainability is so much greater than that.”
Back in 2003, the base adopted 12 sustainability goals for how the base should operate by 2025, and it includes some pretty lofty goals such as reaching net-zero water and energy use on base and managing all waste on the base. They haven't met the goals yet, but they're making progress, Steucke says.
For example, the base's 61-year-old wastewater treatment plant was recently replaced with a modern $91 million facility built so that reclaimed water can be used for on-base irrigation. Almost 70 percent of the base's waste is being diverted from the landfill through recycling and composting programs.
“Joint Base Lewis McChord is a leader across the military when it comes to sustainability,” Steucke says. “We’re trying to be better stewards than our ancestors.”