Migratory Birds

Birds On Base

Conservation and Collaboration on Alaska’s Defense Lands

A girl standing in a marsh at sunrise setting-up a fine mesh net.
Boreal bird banding site on Eagle River Flats, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Mist-netting (shown here) is widely used by ornithologists across the world and is considered among the safest capture techniques for birds. Captures permitted by USFWS Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. 📷 USFWS/Laura McDuffie

Which federal agency oversees the highest density of federally threatened, endangered, and sensitive species in the United States?

It’s not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nor is it the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. It’s the Department of Defense.

An Unlikely Oasis

In addition to providing military support for our country and its allies, the Department of Defense (DoD) manages nearly 30 million acres of land and water. The agency clearly articulates the environmental stewardship goal of conducting inter-service and international readiness training while meeting natural resource management obligations. Within the “Defense lands” are ecologically important areas, populations of federally protected species, and relatively pristine habitats supporting diverse flora and fauna.

A map of the United States with blue polygons.
Military installations across the United States; data by U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, Geography Division, map USFWS/Laura McDuffie

At Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), home to more than 30,000 Service members, civilians, and family members, the sight and sound of military aircraft, gunnery ranges, and heavy equipment in operation are a regular presence. Located just north of Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, JBER seems an unlikely place for wildlife conservation.

But within its tightly secured perimeter, JBER’s 79,000 acres are largely undeveloped and managed in accordance with the Sikes Act, which requires installations to follow an approved natural resource conservation plan. Nestled between Knik Arm to the west and Chugach State Park to the east, the base’s nearshore waters, wetlands, boreal forest and tundra are home to moose, black and brown bears, wolves, bald eagles, loons, rainbow trout, all five species of Pacific salmon, and the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale.

A black bear cub with seeds on face.
A large black and white bird sitting on a nest of mud and sticks.
A variety of wildlife call Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson home. Top: Black bear cub near Fish Lake, JBER, Bottom: Common Loon nesting at Otter Lake, JBER. 📷 USFWS/Laura McDuffie

Maintaining quality habitat for these species is the responsibility of JBER’s Conservation Program. The program also manages other natural and cultural resources on the base; it even oversees an outdoor recreation program. Additionally, JBER’s Conservation Program works with partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to further mutual conservation goals, including monitoring migratory birds.

“During the short summer months, JBER is home to a high diversity of migratory bird species,” said Cassandra Schoofs, JBER’s Avian Program Manager. “The health of bird populations depends on so many different environmental factors, which is why a partnership with Fish and Wildlife Service is so important–the data they collect helps guide JBER’s conservation priorities.”

A man with a long beard looking at a termometer.
USFWS biological science technician, Will Britton, conducting breeding bird surveys at Web Pond, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. 📷 USFWS/Alec Blair

Schoofs works with staff from USFWS’s Alaska Migratory Bird Management Program on a variety of projects, from monitoring eagle nests and banding boreal-forest birds to searching for shorebird nests and tracking species movements with miniature GPS satellite transmitters.

Similarly, at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, USFWS biologists work with Natural Resources staff there to monitor similar species on the base’s 20,000 acres. Of particular concern are those that breed in the boreal forest, a vast and varied ecosystem that is rapidly changing in our warming climate.

“Recent information about the loss of 3 Billion Birds since 1970, has been a wake-up call for biologists and managers to do everything possible to identify causes of declines and restore populations of migratory birds. The collaboration between MBM and DoD, which focuses on several imperiled songbird and shorebirds, does just that.” — Jim Johnson, USFWS Migratory Bird Management Landbird section coordinator

Two people standing in a open coniferous forest.
Biologists surveying for territorial lesser yellowlegs on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall

Shorebirds in Trees

The lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) is a medium-sized sandpiper that breeds in the boreal forest of Alaska and Canada and winters in southern North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. A peculiar shorebird during the breeding season, they typically stand on the tops of trees caterwauling at anything that comes within shouting distance of their nest.

A brown bird with long yellow legs standing on top of a coniferous tree.
A lesser yellowlegs checks its balance on the top of a black spruce tree on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. 📷 USFWS/Alec Blair
An aerial view of agricultural fields.
Agriculture near Calgary, Alberta, Canada–a common feeding area for migrating lesser yellowlegs. 📷 USFWS/Laura McDuffie

Unfortunately, this seemingly common species has experienced a drastic decline of 60–80% since the 1970s. What is causing such a rapid decline? It’s hard to say with certainty because of the complex nature of threats: habitat alteration, agrochemical exposure, unregulated harvest, and climate change.

In 2016 the USFWS and DoD began to investigate causes of decline by establishing a long-term project on JBER. Not only are many of JBER’s wetlands in a natural condition, but they host high densities of breeding lesser yellowlegs and are easy to access by vehicle or foot. The goal of the project was to band and deploy tracking devices on adult lesser yellowlegs to understand how birds migrate and where they are encountering particular threats.

Migratory routes of lesser yellowlegs between 2018–2021. Animation: USFWS/Laura McDuffie

Fast forward six years and the lesser yellowlegs project has flourished, expanding to other breeding sites in Alaska (Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge and Eielson Air Force Base) and Canada (Yellowknife, Churchill, James Bay, and the Mingan Archipelago). By tracking 115 birds, migratory pathways have been described, probabilities of occurrence in harvest regions have been calculated, and new locations for future research on agrochemical threats have been established. The investment of resources by the Department of Defense has and will continue to play an important role in the recovery of lesser yellowlegs.

Allies in Conservation

To some, the Department of Defense sounds like an unlikely ally in the fight for conservation, but in fact, programs such as DoD Legacy Resource Management, DoD Partners in Flight, and The Sentinel Landscapes Partnership have been critical for the effective management of species and their habitats.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” — Helen Keller

A sunrise reflecting in a pond.
Boreal wetland sunrise on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. 📷 USFWS/Laura McDuffie

Read More: Want to learn more about the extraordinary migrations of birds? Check out “A Year in the Life of the Lesser Yellowlegs” to discover the challenges and threats a long-distance migratory shorebird encounter each year.

Birds on Base was co-produced Peter Pearsall and Laura McDuffie (Communication Specialists for The Great Basin Institute and USFWS External Affairs Alaska Region). Data collected by USFWS’s Alaska Migratory Bird Management team.

Ethics Statement: This research was conducted in compliance with Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee standards (USFWS 2016–07 and 2019–05, ADF&G 0058–2018–2, and UAA 1388604).

Funding Statement: This research is supported by the 673 CES/CEIEC, U.S. Department of the Air Force (project numbers FXSB46058118, FXSB4658119 and FXSBA53216120).

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson: DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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