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Conservation at White Sands Missile Range

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Official Army graphic White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico - pictured above with the Organ Mountains in the background - is the largest military installation in the country and encompasses 2 million acres of Chihuahuan Desert terrain.

White Sands Missile Range, north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has been a center of U.S. military testing for 70 years. The first atomic bomb was detonated here in 1945, and today Patriot missile and rocket are tested here.

The missile range takes in 2 million acres of Chihuahuan Desert terrain. In this vast landscape, more than twice the size of Big Bend National Park, scientists are working to conserve unique natural resources.

White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States. It's controlled by the U.S. Army. And the Army, like every government agency, is bound by federal law – including the Endangered Species Act, historic preservation laws and laws protecting eagles and migratory birds.

An environmental review is conducted before every testing mission. And the range employs biologists charged with insuring that military activities don't impact vulnerable species.

“Every installation that has resources is basically required to have biologists and archeologists on staff to make sure that they're being conserved and managed properly,” Trish Cutler, a wildlife biologist at White Sands, said. “And the point of that is so that the military can do whatever testing or training that they need to do on the installation.”

The range includes expansive desert flats. It also contains the entirety of two mountain ranges – the San Andres and the Oscura Mountains.

The Oscura Mountains are home to a chipmunk found nowhere else on earth. At the end of the last Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, species that had roamed broadly across the landscape became isolated in the relatively cool, wet pockets of the region's mountain ranges. Over millenia, these isolated populations have become genetically distinct. The Oscura Mountain chipmunk, a subspecies of the Rocky Mountain chipmunk, is one such creature.

Cutler recruited Jennifer Frey, from New Mexico State University, to lead a survey of the chipmunk.

Military testing is generally confined to the lowlands, so the tests are unlikely to affect the chipmunk. But researchers are interested in how to better manage the forests of the Oscura Moutnains.

“They do live in pinon-juniper woodlands, and one thing we're doing now for example is we're starting to thin out some of those areas,” Cutler said, “because fire has been suppressed in those areas for so long that those forests are getting unnaturally dense. Things like that will improve the habitat for the chipmunk and other species up there.”

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act imposes stiff penalties for killing a golden eagle, even if that killing is unintentional. Officials became aware that golden eagles were being electrocuted by power lines on the missile range, and they've worked to make those lines safer. And in 2013, the range began a survey of its golden eagle population.

In Army helicopters, range biologists and eagle specialists flew the high cliffs of the San Andres and Oscura mountains. The survey documented more than 200 eagle nests – and 29 adult golden eagle pairs.

The range's research has provided new insight into golden eagle ecology in our region. And it's allowed the range to better protect eagle nestlings and eggs during testing missions.

“So we have this great, healthy eagle population in our mountain ranges,” Cutler said. “We say healthy because almost every territory is occupied by an adult breeding pair.”

In 2014, President Obama created a task force to look at the health of pollinator species. Scientists had recordde steep declines in honeybee and monarch butterfly populations. The Defense Department set aside funding to support pollinator health. White Sands is using some of that funding to create a pollinator garden.

Native plant populations are robust across much of the missile range. But with a garden of native flowering plants, the range will support bees, butterflies and hummingbirds in the most developed part of the installation.

“We're putting this garden here in our main post cantonment area, which is our developed area,” Cutler said. “So this is going to be a nice rehabilitation of an area that was bladed and graded at one point.”

White Sands has been critical in the development of the country's most powerful instruments of war. Cutler says it's also a great place to be a wildlife biologist.