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The Associated Press October 16, 2003

Military coexists with endangered pronghorn on bombing range

By Arthur H. Rotstein

It's not yet sunrise but Pam Landin's day is already swinging into high gear on this southern Arizona military range.

She has hiked 200 feet up a rocky slope to a ledge on Observation Point Echo, overlooking a vast flat landscape where Air Force pilots routinely practice bombing runs. With binoculars and a high-powered scope she searches the desert below for endangered Sonoran pronghorns.

The presence of any of the deer-like animals within three kilometers of a nearby array of targets resembling tanks can force pilots to detour to other sites on the Air Force's 1.1 million-acre portion of the range, or even scrub their missions.

The Air Force and the Marines, who also use part of this range, are key players in efforts by federal and state agencies to ensure the survival of the fleet, elusive pronghorns.

Both military branches provide money for studies and other support, even pitching in thousands of dollars to drill desert wells in an adjacent wildlife refuge to irrigate plots of forage for the animals, whose population has been decimated by drought.

Air Force Col. James Uken, the Goldwater range's management officer, said that for the Air Force's part, "when you total up all the different projects we've been involved in over the period of time, I'm sure the dollar value exceeds $1 million."

That doesn't include the cost for the pronghorn spotters - four or five biologists including Landin - who climb observation points overlooking the north and south tactical ranges at least once every weekday a few hours before every bombing run.

"The Air Force spends a lot of money annually simply to avoid the rare, and probably unlikely, scenario of actually harming a pronghorn," said John Hervert, wildlife program manager for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, a principal in a multiagency pronghorn recovery team.

So does the Marine Corps, which manages another nearly 692,000 acres on the Goldwater Range's western end.

"It's something that they've become accustomed to deal with," said John Morgart, coordinator of the Sonoran pronghorn recovery team for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "I have a lot of confidence in my military counterparts."

The goat-sized Sonoran pronghorn, which is related to the antelope but is genetically distinct, is in a critical period.

The U.S. population numbered about 138 less than two years ago, but last winter it crashed to an estimated 21 after more than a year without rain. Northern Mexico has fewer than 300 Sonoran pronghorns.

But the Arizona survivors also produced eight to 10 fawns this spring, with most apparently surviving so far.

Survival of all the fawns would be phenomenal, especially since there was concern whether the animals would even mate last year, said Uken, who considers himself part of the recovery team.

The Air Force has been using pronghorn spotters for at least six years, since Fish and Wildlife issued a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act as part of a settlement with Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group.

"We stood up to that responsibility at least six years ago, and have been doing so ever since," Uken said. "We accept that as part of our doing business, our operations."

On average, 7 percent of all scheduled bombing missions are scrubbed because of pronghorns near target sites, and another 26 percent are rerouted to secondary target areas, he said.

There are 45,000 flights a year over the Air Force side of the Goldwater Range and 18,000 flights a year over the Marines' side, Uken said.

Hervert noted the pronghorns disproportionately favor the Air Force's north and south tactical ranges, where bombs tear up creosote, a plant that hinders the pronghorns' ability to see predators. The bombs, other munitions and flares also gouge out craters that hold rainwater and foster growth of plants the animals favor.

"In doing their job, they've created habitat that is attractive to the animals," Morgart said.

On a recent day, Landin spotted a cluster of tiny specks - five white-rumped pronghorns - bedded in vegetation near a small rocky formation nicknamed Peanut Hill, four or five miles west of her location.

Those pronghorns and two others have been hanging around Peanut Hill for about a month, she said.

Noah Matson, a Washington-based public lands management specialist with Defenders of Wildlife, said the Air Force and Marines are making an effort to help the recovery program.

"We think the Air Force monitoring program is a really important part of the effort," Matson said. "And we don't think it has a tremendous impact on the Air Force training."

Ron Pearce, civilian manager for the nearly 692,000-acre Marine Corps' portion of the Goldwater Range, said the Corps first consulted with Fish and Wildlife in 1988 over the pronghorn and has given more than a dozen research and recovery grants since 1994 to help the animal.

In all, the Marine Corps has spent about $750,000 on pronghorn recovery, of which only $83,000 was required, he said.

"We did it because it was the right thing to do, and we did it because we had the resources and we had the authority," Pearce said.

Legislation now being sought by the Department of Defense seeks exemptions to key environmental laws, contending they hamper the military's ability to train. One of five provisions still before Congress allows for exemption of some military land from critical habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

But biologists and military officials alike say neither Air Force nor Marine operations on the Goldwater Range concerning the Sonoran pronghorn would be affected, primarily because critical habitat was never designated.

"I think the people I deal with would continue to see the positives of having pronghorn monitoring out there," Morgart said. "The military doesn't want to be seen as uncaring of the environment or endangered species."


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