Originally created 09/13/99

Post helps endangered populations



Stepping softly along the sandy firebreak, Ken Boyd followed the sound of high-pitched, staccato chirps into a stand of tall long-leaf pines at Fort Gordon.

Threading his way through the wire grass, sassafras and poison oak, he halted Thursday morning within 50 yards of a dead pine, pointing out the source of the chirps -- two of the post's red-cockaded woodpeckers.

"Their call reminds me of a dog's squeaky toy," said Mr. Boyd, a wildlife biologist at Fort Gordon who watches over the endangered birds and other rare species of animals and plants native to the 56,000-acre Army post.

Since 1973, when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, all federal lands -- including military posts -- have become de facto wildlife refuges and havens for threatened plant and animal life such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and the gopher tortoise.

On military posts, the need to protect animal populations and habitat sometimes conflicts with soldiers' training.

The conflict is more of an issue at posts where combat exercises involving armor and infantry units are common, such as Fort Stewart near Savannah and Fort Benning near Columbus, Ga.

At Fort Gordon, where most training is focused on communications and intelligence gathering, avoiding threatened wildlife is rarely an issue, Mr. Boyd said.

"The main reason that Fort Gordon is here is to train soldiers," Mr. Boyd said. "But as a part of the training, we provide education to all the units that utilize Fort Gordon training areas to make them aware of the natural resources, what occurs there and what precautions they need to take."

Commanders are required to submit training plans whenever troops go to the field to avoid potential conflicts, Mr. Boyd said.

"If we foresee a problem with it, we can shift them 500 or 1,000 yards away," he said.

As the only federally endangered species, the red-cockaded woodpecker sits atop the priority list for protection. Only six birds live at Fort Gordon.

Unlike other woodpeckers, which nest in dead trees, the red-cockaded prefers to excavate its nest into large, live, long-leaf pines -- 80 to 125 years old, Mr. Boyd said.

"Those are hard to come by in this day and time," he said.

Fort Gordon's sand hills provide ideal habitat for several bird and reptile species that are considered rare or are under consideration for federal protection.

The gopher tortoise -- on the verge of being wiped out in Alabama and Mississippi -- is plentiful at Fort Gordon, finding the sandy soil ideal for its 30-foot deep borrows.

The post's Environmental-Natural Resources Office has an active program to increase the number of Southeastern American Kestrels, having installed about 80 houses in a joint effort with students from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.

Post officials are working to restore native plant species as well, replacing loblolly and slash pine with the heartier long-leaf pine and reintroducing wire grass -- the nesting habitat for Bachman's Sparrow -- to the pine forest, Mr. Boyd said.

Officials plan to transplant more woodpeckers from Fort Stewart.

"We're going to bring some more in about the third week of October," Mr. Boyd said.

REACH

S.B. Crawford at (706) 823-3217 or scraw@augustachronicle.com.



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