U.S. Army conserves species from the beloved orchid to the lowly amphipod
Rare wildlife abound amid combat training in eastern Virginia
It was a spring day like any other in eastern Virginia in 2014. Chris Hobson didn’t know it yet, but it was going to be a special one for the field biologist.
He hiked through the woods of Fort A.P. Hill, a vast U.S. Army installation near Bowling Green between the sprawl of the Northern Virginia beltway and the Richmond capital. Boots swishing past weed and bramble, Hobson followed creeks upstream until he reached the very spot where they begin — the place where springs rise from underground.
It was there, beneath the leaf litter packed deep by winter, that Hobson began his search.
Sifting through handfuls of sediment and leaves, Hobson looked for Stygobromus foliatus, the Rappahannock spring amphipod that natural resource staff at Fort A.P. Hill wanted to know more about.
“They’re like small shrimp,” said Hobson, who’s with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program. But these shrimp-like crustaceans really are small, their eyeless, colorless, many-legged bodies stretching just the height of a few stacked pennies at most. Which, for Hobson, means that only some distinctions can be made in the field among the dozens of amphipod species that occur in Virginia.
Hobson found an amphipod, but it wasn’t the Rappahannock, or any amphipod he’d seen before. After weeks of dead ends, he expanded his search to look for species north of Virginia. Coming across a species found 60 miles from Fort A.P. Hill, Hobson stopped and looked twice.
“And dadgum if it wasn’t a dead ringer,” he said.
It was a Kenk’s amphipod.
How did the Kenk’s amphipod, known just from a handful of sites in Maryland and D.C., end up all the way down here? Not only are these sites separated by a two-hour drive with beltway traffic, they are separated by the landscapes on either side of the 400-mile-long Potomac River. Could they be part of an ancient lineage separated by the river?
The unexpected find raised questions not only for Hobson but also for Fort A.P. Hill and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For Fort A.P. Hill, a new endangered species might call for a fresh look at their natural resource management. The Service was considering federal protection for the species, too.
“When we determined that the range of the Kenk’s amphipod could be broader than previously thought, it was critical that we work with experts” to conduct additional surveys, said Troy Anderson, the Service’s endangered species supervisor for Virginia.
Over two years of survey efforts, state and federal experts uncovered six more sites at Fort A.P. Hill, and one across the Rappahannock River at The Nature Conservancy’s Voorhees Nature Preserve. Hobson suspects there may be even more, and that genetic testing would confirm the relationships between the sites.
These findings, as well as enhanced protections for the amphipod at the fort, led the Service to determine in September that the Kenk’s amphipod is not threatened or endangered. It became the latest addition to a suite of more than 100 at-risk species in the eastern U.S. that since 2011 have been determined to not need ESA protection as a result of collaboration with state and federal agencies, researchers and other partners to gather and assess the best available data, including conservation actions.
Training AND Wildlife Conservation at Fort A.P. Hill
“Fort A.P. Hill is a huge chunk of land with relatively minimal development,” Hobson said. “There are a lot of training impacts from the last 76 years, but the habitats are in great shape and not covered in asphalt. While other places have continued impacts on the survival of these species, there’s still a space for them up there at Fort A.P. Hill.”
Indeed, there seems to be quite a bit of space for critters there. The Army base covers 76,000 acres of old-growth forests, swamps, bogs, wetlands and pine savannahs. Below ground is just as diverse, shaped by the rise and fall of the ocean over millions of years.
While the nature of the area is occasionally interrupted by artillery fire and helicopters, and the other sounds of live training under combat-like conditions, the wildlife at Virginia’s largest military reservation don’t seem to mind.
The base, in fact, seems to attract some of the rarest plants and animals in the eastern U.S: Threatened and endangered bats. The rarest orchid east of the Mississippi. A stunning pink wetland flower and a grass-like herb that survive in just a few states. And of course, the eyeless, colorless Kenk’s, tidewater, and Rappahannock spring amphipods.
It’s like a Noah’s Ark for the broader Atlantic Coastal Plain.
“We’ve come to realize that Fort A.P. Hill is just a really biologically rich place, and we don’t take anything for granted,” said Jason Applegate, the installation’s natural resources specialist. “These are great habitats in a good location with good stewardship.”
Managing Endangered Species
The endangered species staff manage four federally listed species and several state-listed species such as the little brown bat, tri-colored bat and New Jersey rush; and more than 20 other rare species and habitats.
Meet a few of the rare species thriving side-by-side with Army soldiers in training, and hear from the biologists working to conserve those species at Fort A.P. Hill:
1) Indiana Bat — Endangered
Indiana bats and wildlife biologist Ben Fulton: While Indiana bats can be found hibernating in the western mountains of Virginia, they had never been confirmed in the state east of the Piedmont. That is, until 2015, when Virginia Tech researchers captured four female Indiana bats on Fort A.P. Hill. They followed the bats, discovering the first documented maternity colony of this endangered bat in Virginia. The maternity colony had at least 20 Indiana bats and was nearly 90 miles from the closest hibernaculum.
“We harvest about 500 acres of timber every year and burn thousands — both are known to benefit bats in general,” Fulton said. “They help create habitat and enhance foraging, creating snags and maintaining areas for bats to fly through. Forest management can benefit bats.” Fulton is also on the lookout for northern long-eared bats, which have been detected through acoustics but not confirmed at Fort A.P. Hill.
2) Northern Long-Eared Bat — Threatened
3) Swamp Pink — Threatened
Swamp pink and natural resource specialist Jason Applegate: This harbinger of spring in forested wetlands is found only along the coastal plain from New Jersey to Virginia, with some populations popping up in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Fort A.P. Hill is home to a whopping 5,000 plants across 55 colonies. The 1–3 foot tall plant is often hidden from the amateur eye in dense thickets and, when blooming with its pink flowers and pale blue anthers, is a delightful find.
“Finding these plants is very validating for the surveyor and for us, the stewards of the environment,” Applegate said. The Fort applies a 150-foot buffer around the colonies to preclude disturbance in order to maintain the integrity of the wetland sites.
4) Small Whorled Pogonia — Threatened
Small whorled pogonia and endangered species botanist Brian Josey: One of the rarest orchids in the country might also be one of the most modest. The white flower of the small whorled pogonia is about the size of a thimble and, with its teeth-like bottom petal, resembles a tiny face.
Most of the time you’re looking for the plant, not the flower, said Josey, who is part of the Colorado State University Center for Environmental Management. “They are easy to walk past,” he said, forcing surveyors to tune their eyes to identify a single stemmed plant sticking out just a couple inches from the ground, with one whorl (circle) of five leaves. They blend easily with shrubs and ferns and can go dormant even when conditions are seemingly perfect, disappearing for 5–8 years at a time. Josey was pleased to find two new colonies of small whorled pogonia this year a mile apart from one another. “You spend months walking out there looking for them and don’t find a trace. It’s a huge surge of excitement.”
While other orchids at Fort A.P. Hill may be showier, like the pink lady slipper and rose pogonia, the small whorled pogonia may have the most mysterious life history. Through collaboration with the Smithsonian, Fort A.P. Hill is advancing knowledge of the species for its recovery, with recent studies finding that the small whorled pogonia requires a particular fungi in the soil.
Fort A.P. Hill Helps Wildlife with Balance
To maintain the landscapes used by these species and soldiers in training, the natural resources team employees a variety of tactics including timber harvests, prescribed burning, plantings, invasive species control and delayed mowing of open areas.
“Rather than just trying to do the bare minimum conservation obligations, they’re taking it another step to have a good handle on what’s happening on base and the necessary management for those resources,” said Troy Anderson with the Service. “As a former Department of Defense manager, I know it has everything to do with how they see their mission at Fort A.P. Hill: to strike a balance between mission readiness and sustainable environmental practices.”