This is the first in a series of articles featuring the Department of Public Works.
Taking care of bat, coyote, rat, and rattlesnake infestations while working as an advocate for the wildlife and the vegetation surrounding the installation is all in a day’s work for employees of the White Sands Missile Range Environmental Stewardship Branch.
“A lot of these jobs go to our basic needs of making life bearable. These are thankless jobs that go to these individuals who should probably be rewarded more often than not,” said Jose Gallegos, director of the Department of Public Works.
The team is made up of eight employees: Junior Kerns, Environmental chief, Christina Rodden, wildlife biologist and pest manager, Dave Anderson, botanist and land manager, Trish Cutler, wildlife biologist, Bill Godby, archaeologist, Patrick Morrow, wildlife biologist, Greg Filsby, general biologist land manager and Jim Bowman, Native American coordinator.
Kerns said there are several programs the division is in charge of that not many people may know about. One of the programs they get calls for at least once a week is the wildlife depredation response program. Rodden oversees the program and provides recommendations whenever wildlife like bobcats, rattlesnakes or bats come into a building.
It’s not uncommon for Kerns’ team to respond to situations that many would deem dangerous.
“We’ll get reports that a cluster of snakes are curled up under a building sometimes,” Kerns said.
The calls are year-round because Kerns said certain animals come out at different times. Bats are recurring from May to October in areas like buildings 124 and 126 where they are known to get in above the ceiling tiles.
“Folks like Christina and Trish Cutler will find ways to try to get them out without injury or death,” Kerns said.
Animal infestations can affect more than a day’s work on some occasions. Kerns said half of the local power outages are caused by wildlife such as bats or bobcats.
“(At times) they knock out the power to a street. We provide advice or guidance on how to modify areas to keep bobcats and even squirrels out,” Kerns said.
Most recently, Kerns said they handle a series of issues like oryx, gophers and raccoons in the golf course. The raccoons are known to peel away parts of the turf and roll it up like a rug in order to get to the bugs underneath. Rodden has also developed a stray animal program after the 2nd Engineer Battalion left in early 2015.
The division also handles the control and management of invasive plant species. Kerns said that sometimes contractor vehicles will come in from other sites and carry seeds from other locations. Recently, workers from an internal construction job brought in a halogeton plant that produces thousands of seeds and absorbs a lot of water.
“A lot of those plants can be water hogs that really affects the natural environment,” Kerns said.
The team also helps to protect migratory birds and golden eagles. Cutler is in charge of the programs that protect golden eagle habitats.
In the wild, each pair of eagles maintains a territory that includes four or five nests that can often be found in deserted areas of the installation. According to Kerns, in the fall and winter WSMR gets a lot of birds that spend the winter in the area, often causing issues during testing at night, with birds being attracted to the lights.
“It’s always a decision about where to put our energy and our resources,” Kerns said.
The branch also takes several steps to ensure the history of WSMR is not lost by having its archaeologists work to identify and protect historical sites. So much so that the archaeologists research old landfills within the installation that date 30 to 40 years back.
“There’s a tremendous amount of cultural information out there,” Kerns said.
The Environmental Branch also coordinates two major hunts for Desert Bighorn Sheep and Oryx. The hunting fees authorized by the Sikes Act allow the installation to charge each individual for a permit onto the land. Kerns said the fee goes directly back to the Environmental Branch for fish and wildlife projects. The fees have helped pay for wildlife water development studies, black bear surveys and any other surveys where funds were needed to complete the study.
“The way I think of it (we do this) for WSMR to comply with environmental laws. Complying with these laws allows us to keep functioning without delay, or even worse penalty or jail time,” Cutler said. “There’s also a sustainability issue. It’s in everybody’s best interest to keep the land we train on in good condition. It’s compatible with carrying out the mission.”