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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

National Security and the Loggerhead Shrike

Air Date: Week of

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More often than it would like, the United States military must accommodate plants and animals that live on military lands. Sometimes the efforts are so successful they lead to even more species needing protection. Eric Anderson reports.


CURWOOD: The issue of environmental protection and military readiness is especially pointed off the coast of southern California. Eric Anderson of member station KPBS reports from San Clemente Island, where the Navy conducts live fire exercises while, at the same time, it tries to protect a small bird.

ANDERSON: San Clemente Island rises out of the Pacific Ocean, grassy and windswept, some 70 miles off the San Diego coast. This 21-mile long spit of land is home to the U.S. Navy’s most prized West Coast training area. Destroyers, submarines and fighter jets have free rein around the island. Parts of San Clemente also serve as a target for bombs, missiles and heavy shells.

Near a military bunker perched on the side of a hill, Navy contractor, Tom Sowden, points toward a barren swatch of land.

SOWDEN: If you look out here you can see a couple of white shapes on the ground. We have armed personnel carriers, old Korean War vintage tanks, World War II vintage artillery, a couple of tanker-truck bodies, and some dipsy dumpsters that we use for targets out there.

ANDERSON: Three days a week, pilots from nearby aircraft carriers can fly in over the range and drop their bombs. The rest of the week the training range is shut down. That allows biologists to survey two nearby canyons for signs of an endangered bird.

ANDERSON: Although it has cousins thriving on the mainland, this subspecies of loggerhead shrike is found only on San Clemente Island. Life here has been less than hospitable for the small insect-feeding bird. More than 30,000 goats munched and trampled the island’s trees and bushes that let wild grasses cover the ground where the shrike finds its food.

Navy contractor, Kelly Brock, a biologist, says the bird retreated into two canyons near the bombing range, only to be pursued by animal predators.

BROCK: The biggest threat to the shrike is when the young leave the nest and come outside of the protected radius that we have around the nest, and that’s when they become vulnerable.

ANDERSON: It didn’t help that incendiary bombs occasionally touched off wildfires that roared through the island’s wild grasses. A combination of circumstances pushed the shrike population down to just 13 birds by 1998.

With some legal prodding from environmental groups, the Navy tried harder to protect the shrike. They limited bombing sorties, controlled fire sparked by weapons, and hired a team from the San Diego Zoo to start a captive breeding program. Now, keeper Jennifer Pulduka, watches out for the birds from the time the eggs are laid. She moves them from one incubator to another until a fledgling pecks through its shell.

PULDUKA: We also keep the little birds in here. They are really, really small when they are born. They are four to five grams, very, very small, naked, no feathers. And this is where everything begins. This is when they start growing up.

ANDERSON: The results have been dramatic. Sixty-four shrikes now live in breeding pens, and there are 123 in the wild. The commander of the Coronado Naval Base, Captain David Landon, says the Navy has spent more than two million dollars a year during the last decade protecting the bird.

LANDON: We’ve been extremely successful in managing the species, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the percentages of the species that we have managed and seen those species thrive and to increase in numbers. But because of that, then what happens is they expand their range and that starts to have more impact on our training and the training areas that we have available.

ANDERSON: Further complicating the ecological balance on San Clemente is another creature, the Channel Island Fox. Biologist Kelly Brock says the small cat-size mammal preys on shrikes. During the past decade, contractors have tried a number of strategies to protect the birds, including shooting the foxes. But now, there is another problem. The foxes’ numbers appear to be declining too fast.

BROCK: We’re not really focusing so much on the shrike as a single species. We have to take an ecosystem approach, because we don’t want to preserve one native species at the expense of another. So, with the fox we’re taking a lot of proactive measures this year to halt whatever decline may be occurring.

ANDERSON: Fox communities on four nearby islands are already considered endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the San Clemente Island fox is added to the endangered list, Captain Landon says that could bring all military training on the island to a halt.

LANDON: Developing that management plan could impact us so that we would have to shut down the training that we now actively train in, in order to go in to reestablish the population.

ANDERSON: Meanwhile, the Navy is working the federal officials in hopes of taking the loggerhead shrike off the endangered species list. What the Navy really wants though is a little more flexibility. Officers would like to be able to move or disturb some endangered animals. That could happen if Congress agrees that some of the nation’s environmental laws have become too big a burden for the armed forces.

For Living on Earth, I’m Eric Anderson at San Clemente Island.

[MUSIC: Nitin Sawheny, "Migration," REBIRTH OF THE COOL 4 (Island Records, 1996)]

CURWOOD: Coming up, how to stay comfy and cozy in the wild. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Nitin Sawheny, "Migration," REBIRTH OF THE COOL 4 (Island Records, 1996)]



San Clemente Island


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