Today’s Washington Post has an article about efforts by the U.S. Army to preserve habitat for the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, while likewise preserving some politically well-connected Texas ranchers.
Fort Hood, Texas, is the largest Army base in the world. It is home to both divisions of III Corps and sits in the middle of the only Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat in the United States.
Fort Hood is named for Confederate General John Bell Hood, a classic example of a physically courageous, aggressive military commander, promoted beyond his level of competence. Hood enjoyed success as a brigade commander but, after promotions ordered by Jefferson Davis, lost the Battle of Atlanta, then sent his Army of Tennessee on a fatal wild goose chase while Sherman, ignoring Hood, marched to the sea.
In 1864, while the newly-promoted Hood was losing battles and armies, someone discovered the Golden-cheeked Warbler in the hill country of Texas, north of Austin. The warbler is the only endemic nesting bird in Texas, which has reports of more than 600 species sightings.
Humanity has not been good for the Golden-cheeked Warbler. It lives only in the juniper-oak habitat of Central Texas where it breeds and in the similar habitat of Chiapas, Mexico and Northern Guatemala, where it winters. Humans in both places continue to destroy its habitat and it is now an endangered species.
In Central Texas, humanity’s penchant for warfare has combined with agriculture to destroy much of Central Texas’ juniper-oak forests. By 1942 Germany’s successful blitzkreig tactics in Europe resulted in the U.S. Army developing tank destroyers which required a lot of open space for training the soldiers who would operate them in Europe. The country north of Austin was ideal and Fort Hood was the result. Troops charging all over the place, destroying trees, firing live shells, and otherwise making a lot of noise are not good for tiny little songbirds trying to raise families.
But, in recent years, the Army has taken a leading role in attempting to save the warblers and you can read about some of them in today’s article. But a part of its efforts have resulted in some controversy. During the Bush Administration the Army began paying local land owners to agree to protect habitat in the vicinity of Fort Hood for periods ranging from ten to twenty-five years. In return, the Army gets to destroy more habitat on Fort Hood.
Many army officers and environmentalists are not happy. The science on habitat protection is clear: It only works if the land is protected in perpetuity, and it doesn’t work at all if it is only a patch-work job. Large contiguous parcels must be protected. Wildlife, unlike electrons, cannot simply jump from one parcel to another without traveling through the intervening space.
So many Army officers think the money would be better spent by buying permanent conservation easements. We suspect the Golden-cheeked Warblers agree.
For more on the Golden-cheeked Warbler, here is the Birds of North America article, subscription required.
The photo of the warbler was taken by Steve Maslowski for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.