Army project to benefit endangered bats
Stars and Stripes
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The biggest beneficiary of an Army project to clear brush along the edge of its training area in Hohenfels is expected to be a small, endangered bat with a taste for beetles and butterflies.
Researchers believe the last German colony of the greater horseshoe bat feeds primarily in the Hohenfels Training Area, a 40,000-acre swath of hills, forest and rocky outcrops restricted to military exercises since 1938.
With funding from the European Union, workers on the post are set to begin a five-year project to expand that feeding area. Along some 3,000 acres — more than 7 percent of the training area — they’ll clear brush to open up flight corridors and plant fruit trees in some places to attract more insects.
The work also stands to benefit Army trainers in Hohenfels, who are concerned by an overgrowth of shrubby vegetation from years of lighter training and the limits it could place on future use, which might call for more open space.
As the Army balances future training needs with an elevated responsibility to protect threatened species and habitats, projects like the greater horseshoe bat offer a win-win scenario, and one the service likes to showcase.
“What we try to do is to connect both goals of training and nature protection into one goal,” said Albert Boehm, who works in the nature protection section in the Hohenfels directorate of public works. “That sounds always a little crazy, but actually we have the same goals. Trainers want open lands. For the kind of species we have here, open land is the best.”
Effort a first
The Army’s need for open space generally meshes with the needs of local, threatened species. Bats are an example. Of the 19 bat species in the training area, the greater horseshoe bat is the most threatened.
Small and brown with a U-shaped nose, the greater horseshoe bat likely numbered in the thousands in the Hohenfels area, said Rudolf Leitl, of the Bavarian bird protection organization Landesbund für Vogelschutz, or LBV. It thrived in the region’s rocky and cave-dotted landscape until public access regularly interrupted hibernation. Pesticide use on fields in the area reduced insect populations, he said.
The species is now down to a single breeding colony in Germany, discovered years ago inside an abandoned farmhouse in the town of Hohenburg, on the training area’s northern border. The bats fly out every evening to feed on the training area.
“The training area is a great plain without pesticide,” Leitl said.
It’s also a critical part in naturalists’ plans to restore the greater horseshoe bat population. With a grant of roughly 1 million euros — half of it funded by the European Union — LBV is managing the regional effort to encourage bat feeding and breeding areas.
The training area represents 60 percent of the acreage affected by the project, but only 150,000 euros of the project money, according to Leitl and others. Much of the remaining project funds will go to German landowners around the training area, as well as public education efforts.
Planning for the project began years ago, according to officials involved, and it received an early buy-in from Installation Management Command-Europe. It needed similar support from training commanders. While the Hohenfels garrison had long supported bat populations — in 2003, it locked access to local caves — the project would make portions of the training area off-limits for periods of time.
“At first there was perceptions of, ‘Is this project going to hurt training?’ ” said Nate Whelan, director of USAREUR Integrated Training Area Management. “But what was the value of bringing all these people proactively around the table is some of those myths and some of the gossip went out the window.”
The next five years and beyond will tell the results of the project. Boehm and others say it has already made history — the effort is believed to be the first EU-funded project on an active military installation in Germany.
Training areas vital
U.S. environmental legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, including the 1973 Endangered Species Act, pushed the military to protect species on its lands while coordinating with other federal agencies. As critical habitats disappeared outside military boundaries, the role of training areas have become that much more important, according to the military’s Natural Resources Conservation Compliance Program.
Today more than 1,000 imperiled plants and animals live on the roughly 29 million acres controlled by the military in the U.S., the most per acre of any lands controlled by a U.S. federal agency, the program reports. Examples of threatened species include the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which thrives on habitat found at Fort Stewart, Ga., as well as other installations in the Southeastern U.S., and the threatened small whorled pogonia, one of America’s rarest orchids, found at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
U.S. Army Europe manages 27 training areas in Europe totaling 119,148 acres, or roughly 186 square miles, Whelan said. Of those, all but one are in Germany. The other is in Belgium.
The training areas are prized as much for their environmental value as their military role. Largely acquired after World War II, they have remained disconnected from pressures of development and public use for decades, making them refuges to some of Europe’s most threatened plant and animal species.
The Hohenfels office of the German federal forest agency, the Bundesforstbetrieb, counts 1,000 red-listed, or threatened species, in Hohenfels alone. Butterflies and bats are major species for protection, said Manfred Kellner, head of the Hohenfels office.
“So when you go out during rainy periods, after a summer rain, you see them on the tank road, thousands and millions of butterflies,” he said. “It’s really crazy... That’s very unique because you don’t see that somewhere else anymore.”
Formal recognition of the training areas’ significance came about 10 years ago, when Germany listed most of the Army training areas — including Hohenfels and nearby Grafenwöhr — as protected areas under the European Union’s Natura 2000 network.
Military areas are sometimes “among the richest and most important sites for biodiversity in their country,” a 2005 report by the European Commission stated.
The Natura 2000 designation punctuated a period of low-impact training that followed the intense use of the Cold War era, when tank-heavy training stripped vegetation and left dusty trails, creating what looked like a moonscape.
Today, tracked vehicles have largely disappeared from the training areas. Rotations are fewer and smaller, and training has focused on foot-heavy counterinsurgency tactics versus heavy armor.
Strykers, the wheeled, highly mobile fighting vehicles now common in Grafenwöhr, largely stick to the roads and create less damage, Whelan said.
The vegetation trend has moved too far in the other direction, he said. With little pressure from training, woody shrubs have grown over some areas, leaving less room for potential exercises. In 2008, open area represented 47 percent of the Grafenwöhr Training Area, down from 63 percent in 1952-1953.
“Your other options for keeping vegetation down are mechanical, which is expensive; grazing, which is a lot of coordination; or fire, which is very controversial,” Whelan said. “So the easiest thing is to have a tank go out there and tear it up a little bit.”