Scientists and soldiers saving songbirds


Human activity has encroached on natural wildlife habitats in many places around the world, but just outside of Tacoma, Washington, two species are finding ways to live and work together.

Soldiers at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord are working with conservation biologists to share their training site with a small population of endangered songbirds.

Our environmental reporting partner, EarthFix, has the story.


So the nest is just right here.

A baby streaked horned lark.

They look like grumpy little old men.

They never peep at you when you hold them, but it's just the look that does it.

Only about 2,000 are left on the planet.

Holding these little creatures in my hand is nerve-racking.

My fingers still shake.

And then I'm putting the silver band on with this pair of banding pliers.

The colored bands will help identify this lark once it leaves the nest.

That guy is going to be known as yellow-orange, white-over-silver-blue.

Adrian Wolf is trying to save these native Northwest songbirds from going extinct.

And there he goes.

Good luck, buddy.

You can do it.

But there's danger nearby.


The prairies these larks rely on happen to be within the Northwest's largest military base.

[ Men shouting indistinctly ] [ Gunshots ]

At Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Western Washington, thousands are learning what it takes to be soldiers.

Training is important.

Training, it increases our readiness, and readiness is our number-one priority all across the Army.

Lieutenant Colonel J.D. Williams commands a battalion of 600.

Fire when ready!

It's his job to get them ready for deployment.

You can't just show up to remote locations and expect to know what you're doing, so you absolutely have to come out in environments like here at JBLM and utilize the land and train and perfect your craft as a soldier.

One of the most difficult skills, Williams says, is learning to fire heavy artillery.

It takes a battery of nine people working in careful coordination with a remote crew spotting the target and relaying coordinates.

All right.

Dock. Fire.


What does an artillery battalion need?

Absolutely, we need land.

We need -- When we shoot our projectile, it'll go six miles away.

I need space so I can shoot something, and I can observe it, and I can test that system and make it better and make those soldiers better artillery.


[ Explosions ]

Like the soldiers, the larks also need hundreds of open acres.

Once they leave the nest, it's harder for biologists to watch over them.

They're pretty small, smaller than a robin, bigger than a warbler.

They're really cute.

Males, especially, have these little horns, or feathers that look like horns.

They don't actually have horns.

Oh, there he is.

It's in the scope, right now.

Oh, there's another one.

The way that they can hide in just plain sight is amazing.

I mean, even those of us that have been doing it a long time and are very experienced and looking for these animals and know that they're out there, still, they are very difficult to find.

Streaked horned larks used to be found from British Columbia to Southern Oregon, but their range has contracted to a few thousand acres.

Well, they're not doing very well.

They are in decline.

Historical counts, where they used to be common and abundant, then they're not now.

They're really rare.

It's part of Paul Steucke's job to figure out how to train soldiers without killing an endangered species.

We're not looking to trade one off versus the other.

I want to make sure that our service members can get their job done but that, in the process of getting their job done, what we have isn't destroyed.

To accomplish this, the base has hired biologists to do conservation work here.

Biologists gather GPS data on nest locations and track young birds when they're most vulnerable.

This will help me remember how many nestlings, how many eggs, and what stage they're all at.

So we are working to identify the locations of the nests, and we provide that location information in real time back to the site managers.

Base officials use this data to adjust training missions to accommodate the lark.

They think of the nest locations like hospitals or friendly military units, things that soldiers wouldn't want to destroy on a real-life battlefield.

One, two, three.


Stand clear.

They give us a graphic, you know, and so it's a military overlay, and we go plot it on our map and say, 'Stay out,' or, 'Void' or, 'Make sure you stay here, and don't you think about coming over here.'


That's great.

We're not going there.

Estimate zero casualties.


They hold us accountable for the land that we use, and they ensure that we are environmental assistive and that we didn't destroy the land or pollute the environment or harm any species or any endangered or critical species, and so I think it's exceptional land management and safe and considerate.

The sprawling military base has actually helped the lark by defending its prairie from development.

So these open training lands provide the habitat because the military is here.

Without the military, these would probably already be lost.

Prairies were once the dominant landscape in this area, but in the decades since the base was established in 1917, the land surrounding the base was taken over by agriculture and then suburban sprawl.

Nearly all that remains of the region's prairie is on the base.

It's become one of the rarest types of landscapes in the United States.

This is the irony.

These military bases are the last refuges of fantastic habitat that's left, really, anywhere around the country.

It may seem impossible that larks would be able to coexist with artillery-firing soldiers, helicopters, guns, and bombs, but living in such a dangerous place may, in fact, be what has protected the streaked horned lark.