Sunday, October 22, 2006

Military bases, labs serve as refuges for cougars, other wildlife

Scripps Howard News Service

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The missing cameras posed an amusing mystery for wildlife biologists at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Designed to take pictures at night of wildlife moving through the area, most cameras on the lab's 36-square-mile property are in pristine condition.

But at one site, cameras kept vanishing. All that remained were scattered scraps of camera.

"We finally salvaged one with a little bit of film in it, and there was this bear staring right into the camera with this hungry look on his face," wildlife biologist James Biggs said with a laugh.

Wildlife is not something most people associate with national labs and military bases, but restricted access and high security make them ideal spots for conservation, said Corry Westbrook, a legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation.

Across New Mexico, wildlife flourishes on some of the state's most heavily guarded facilities.

"It's an interesting concept on wildlife management when military bases are some of the safest places for animals to live," Westbrook said. "It seems counterintuitive."

At Sandia National Laboratories, wildlife biologist Stephanie Salinas has seen a host of interesting creatures, including mountain lions, bears, bobcats and mule deer.

"My favorite thing I see on our site is badgers," Salinas said, sitting in her small office next to a pair of signs that say "Do Not Disturb: Raptor Roosting Area."

Rattlesnakes are quite common at the labs. They like to sunbathe on the roads; Salinas often has to go out and shoo them away.

The area offers a safer spot for creatures to hang out than the land surrounding Sandia, she said.

"It's great because we don't have the recreation that we see at other sites -- we have this great conservation area," Salinas said.

Los Alamos, Sandia, Kirtland Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, among others, are prime spots for migrating birds, said Carol Finley, natural-resources manager at Kirtland.

"One thing we have is the state-threatened gray viero," Finley said. "It's a little songbird. They're real safe here because there's no activity going on in the area where they reside."

Burrowing owls, once common in Albuquerque, have moved to Kirtland and Sandia land, where their habitat remains undisturbed, Salinas said.

The owls don't like the city environment or pavement.

"That's probably one of the animals we'll see more of on site as Albuquerque continues to grow," Salinas said.

Activities at the labs can sometimes get loud, but generally, they don't disturb the animals, she said.

If scientists plan an experiment for a particular area, biologists build roosts in another spot and try to encourage birds and other creatures to move, Salinas said.

White Sands Missile Range has its share of strange animals. Roaming freely and posing a population problem are African oryx, brought to New Mexico in the 1950s by big-game hunters.

Most government sites don't let hunters onto their property, but White Sands does control the oryx population, said Patrick Morrow, a wildlife biologist at the range.

"It's very widespread throughout our 2 million acres," Morrow said. "We're in control mode. We're trying very diligently to reduce the population. People come from all over the country to apply for those hunts."

The oryx threaten another rare species -- the desert bighorn sheep, a native animal that is being outgrazed by the oryx, Morrow said.

In 1997, the bighorn population at White Sands had dropped to "less than a handful," he said.

Since then, the state has traded Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep -- which aren't threatened in New Mexico but are in Arizona -- to Arizona in exchange for desert bighorn sheep -- which thrive in Arizona, Morrow said. regional/16e54e0c0388db908725720d006437d6.txt

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