BY JODI PETERSON
Hawaii’s Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) sits on a high plateau between volcanic mountains on the Big Island. At this key military facility, firing ranges and training exercises help prepare Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine troops for weapons use and combat operations. PTA’s 132,200 acres also contain one of the planet’s rarest habitats – a tropical, sub-alpine, dryland ecosystem. More than two dozen threatened and endangered species thrive here, including rare plants, endemic birds and seabirds, and Hawaii’s only native land mammal – the Hawaiian hoary bat.
Since 2003, a team from the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML), an organization headquartered in Fort Collins, CO at Colorado State University, has worked to support both the training mission and complex conservation issues at PTA. The team’s 28 members have developed strong partnerships with communities and with the military, contributed to scientific publications, initiated a comprehensive examination of climate change effects, and provided innovative support for wildfire management. Lena Schnell, a senior program manager who has been with CEMML for almost 20 years, leads the team, which includes five groups focused on wildlife, plants, GIS and ecological data, invasive species, and administration.
The CEMML team’s landscape-level management includes protection of federally listed plant species such as Hawaiian yellow wood and Hawaiian mint. “We have a genetic conservation program to collect the seeds of rare species, germinate them, and put those plants back on the land,” said Schnell. Fencing at the installation also helps rare plants, by keeping invasive goats, sheep, and pigs out of 37,300 acres of dryland forest; outside the fences, a hunting program further reduces ungulate numbers. “Our game manager has implemented new methods to estimate game populations,” she noted. “We recommend different hunting strategies and scenarios to balance populations.”
The wildlife team also works to control introduced predators such as feral cats, dogs, mongoose, and rodents, to protect vulnerable native birds such as the Hawaiian goose, or nene, and the band-rumped storm petrel. Rogelio Doratt, wildlife program manager, described how his staffers use live traps to catch predators. For many years, they had to check the traps in person at least once every 24 hours, which involved a lot of time and labor. Now, they have greatly reduced costs by using remote sensors that send out signals to help biologists determine if the trap was triggered. The traps can be left open constantly, instead of just during working hours, because on-call biologists can respond whenever they receive a signal. The extended trapping time means, said Doratt, that they are catching many more predators and consequently, finding far fewer bird carcasses, all with much less field effort than before. “We feel that our efforts have really decreased predation,” he said, “and we’re seeing more successful breeding.”
Another conservation-enhancing, cost-saving effort involved new technology to monitor Hawaiian goose and storm petrel nests. The team uses a motion-sensor camera for monitoring, which records 10,000 photos per week. Those photos then required two weeks of time to evaluate, meaning the team was continually behind in checking for potential issues or emerging threats. Now, a timelapse tool allows those 10,000 photos to be evaluated in just a day and a half, giving researchers information about the nest’s fate much more quickly – number of hatchlings, whether they succumbed to predators or disease, and so on. “That high-quality data lets us report to the Army and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the effectiveness of our management actions,” says Doratt, “and the timelapse tool has greatly reduced the personnel time needed.”
Climate change is a further area where the CEMML team’s innovative work is making a difference. To evaluate potential impacts of climate change on threatened and endangered species, the ecological data team created a series of vulnerability analyses. They then used recent mapping products from the University of Hawaii to determine if these species will still have adequate habitat on the installation under projected climate conditions. The team also uses species-specific climate projections to decide where best to plant seedlings grown in nurseries at PTA.
Managing wildland fire is another key piece of the survival puzzle for rare plants and animals. The CEMML ecological data team developed an innovative way to quickly determine if a wildfire had damaged areas that held threatened or endangered species. Using publicly available satellite imagery, the team could find out almost immediately if a particular area had burned, rather than having to wait for two or three weeks until the fire was completely out and it was safe to send crews into the field. “The base wanted to know what was going on right away,” said Schnell, “because one fire could potentially cause an endangered plant with a small population to go completely extinct.”
For all these accomplishments, the entire CEMML team recently received the organization’s 2021 Outstanding Achievement Team Award. Dave Jones, CEMML principal investigator for the project, notes that this is by far the most complex and challenging agreement he has managed. “Between the remote location, rugged terrain, requirements related to threatened and endangered species conservation, and the multiple ecological stressors and threats, our staff members have their hands full,” he said. “Their extensive experience, work ethic, and ability to navigate both the military and regulatory environments has enabled the project to succeed in many ways.”
The team’s effective, highly professional work recently earned it a new cooperative support agreement from the U.S. Army. “Our original agreement was going to expire last summer,” said Schnell. “We had to compete against two other organizations.” The CEMML team now has another five years to keep innovating ways to protect rare flora and fauna, while making sure that military operations can carry on as needed.