Celebrating 50 years of endangered species management

  • Published
  • By Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

The Department of the Air Force is a steward of over 8.3 million acres of land, including forests, prairies, deserts, wetlands, and coastal habitats full of wildlife, on which it conducts realistic testing and training missions.

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act – one of the world’s most critical conservation laws – the Department of the Air Force is showcasing how its robust natural resources program is protecting the 123 threatened and endangered species that call its installations home.

“We don’t want the species at DAF installations to merely survive. We want them to thrive,” explained Dr. Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Energy, Installations, and Environment. “Thanks to our teams down at Eglin AFB in Florida, the Okaloosa Darter fish is now off the threatened and endangered species list, and the Red Cockaded Woodpecker is poised for downlisting in 2024. We’ve increased woodpecker populations by 178% since 1994, validation of our commitment to conservation.”

Species conservation is not only important for maintaining ecosystems, but also the Department of the Air Force’s ability to sustain its mission. If a particular species on Air Force land becomes jeopardized and warrants protection by law, training and testing activities may be restricted. Their health is paramount to mission success.

Around the country, the Department of the Air Force’s Natural Resources Program supports species recovery by ensuring compliance with federal laws, like the Endangered Species Act. For example, Vandenburg Space Force Base, California is the only location in the Department of the Defense where intercontinental ballistic missiles can be operationally tested for the nation’s nuclear deterrence capability. To safely execute rocket launches, the base has nearly 100,000 acres of intact buffer habitat where endangered species thrive. One such species, the monarch butterfly, is expected to be added to the endangered species list this year.  Through a partnership project, Vandenburg is using applied research capabilities to inform adaptive management approaches for species recovery, including installing modified infrared cameras and wind sensors to track monarch cluster locations and movement.

Last August, the Department of the Air Force celebrated the official removal of the Okaloosa darter from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, thanks to 30 years of recovery efforts led by Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Aided by a robust regulatory partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other organizations, Eglin implemented a series of mitigative actions to address sedimentation into streams from the highly erodible soils on the installation, which improved stream habitat for the small fish’s populations to thrive. The success at Eglin exemplifies how built infrastructure improvements to enhance military capabilities can contribute to endangered species recovery.

The department is also leading a multiple-installation effort to revitalize the red cockaded woodpecker, helping to restore more than 26,000 acres of longleaf pine forest, and engaging in proactive forest management. Working in close partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, and universities, the department has increased populations and now houses 585 active potential breeding pairs across its installations. The red cockaded woodpecker is set to be downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2024. 

External partnerships are critical to the department’s ability to fulfill its dual responsibility to its mission and the species it stewards. The Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program helps installations work with local partners to set aside land outside the fence-line to preserve military missions and address environmental considerations that limit operations. In 2019, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, executed the largest REPI transaction in history with The Conservation Fund. The transaction created a 30,653-acre easement on adjacent land to protect Melrose Air Force Range from development encroachment, which can create vertical hazards, light pollution, and negatively impacting flight paths. The easement also provides critical protected habitat for lesser prairie-chicken, which is threatened by structures taller than grass level.

Through the application of practical ecosystem management techniques, the Department of the Air Force is protecting and preserving the health, diversity and productivity of its natural resources. Linking mission objectives to effective environmental stewardship ensures military readiness and the sustainment of Department of the Air Force installations for years to come.