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Kirtland AFB wildlife management program tracks (mountain) lions, tigers (not really) and bears

A bear lounges in a water trough

A military base, because of its undeveloped areas, can be a haven for wildlife. This is especially true for an installation as large as Kirtland Air Force Base, with more than 50,000 acres providing habitat for many creatures, including a bear. (Courtesy photo)

Mountain lion drinks water from a trough

A military base, because of its undeveloped areas, can be a haven for wildlife. This is especially true for an installation as large as Kirtland Air Force Base, with more than 50,000 acres providing habitat for many creatures, including a mountain lion. (Courtesy photo)

Burrowing owl sits above ground

A military base, because of its undeveloped areas, can be a haven for wildlife. This is especially true for an installation as large as Kirtland Air Force Base, with more than 50,000 acres providing habitat for many creatures, including a burrowing owl. (Courtesy photo)

Black-crowned night heron stands near water

A military base, because of its undeveloped areas, can be a haven for wildlife. This is especially true for an installation as large as Kirtland Air Force Base, with more than 50,000 acres providing habitat for many creatures, including a black-crowned night heron. (Courtesy photo)

Trogidae (hide) beetle at Kirtland AFB

A military base, because of its undeveloped areas, can be a haven for wildlife. This is especially true for an installation as large as Kirtland Air Force Base, with more than 50,000 acres providing habitat for many creatures, including a trogidae (hide) beetle. (Courtesy photo)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

A military base, because of its extensive undeveloped areas, can be a haven for wildlife. This is especially true for an installation as large as Kirtland Air Force Base, with more than 50,000 acres providing habitat for many creatures, from burrowing owls to bears.

Dave Reynolds, an archaeologist by training and the Natural and Cultural Resources program manager at Kirtland AFB since 2017, explained the wildlife management program’s purpose.

“The Air Force needs land that’s in a natural state to support various aspects of the mission, including training, testing, and research and development activities. Kirtland AFB contains diverse ecosystems, including grasslands, pinon juniper forest, mountainous terrain, and riparian areas bordering rivers and streams. Kirtland has unique land that’s good for training, because it’s similar to other parts of the world that Airmen operate in,” he said.

In addition to supporting current operations, natural resources management works toward the future, to ensure continued access to the land and airspace required to accomplish the Air Force mission, he said.

“Maintaining a healthy ecosystem on Kirtland supports preservation of species that may be classified as endangered in the future. Activities on lands inhabited by endangered species pose significant challenges, with the potential to restrict access,” Reynolds said.  

He said that although there is no endangered species habitat on base, endangered transient birds fly through on their migration routes.

Regulatory drivers related to natural resources are federal laws, with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act being the big ones, he said. Kirtland AFB is also subject to the Sikes Act, requiring the Air Force, where possible, to manage installation lands for conservation/rehabilitation while supporting the mission. The act provides the framework for cooperation between the Air Force, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, universities, and Native American tribes.

“We cooperate with universities to do research out here. Through the Army Corps of Engineers, we fund biologists, who are out year-round. The result of that is doctoral dissertations, public outreach, and academic papers, as well as the information we need to manage Kirtland, like ‘Where are the bird nests,’ and ‘Where do we have to avoid working?’”

He said the base having mutual goals with tribal, state and federal regulatory agencies, such as the Pueblo of Isleta, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, naturally leads to cooperation and sharing information, and that supports the Air Force mission.

“When the agencies share data that indicates, for example, a species has migrated off base but is still present in the region, it’s then not identified as endangered, so military construction projects and other activities can continue without affecting endangered populations.”

Reynolds said the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the Department of Transportation are looking at wildlife corridors near the base.

“We’re tagging mountain lions and bears, and getting great data. We can see where they’re crossing I-25 and I-40.”

Another element of his work directly ties into aviation safety.

“We support the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program on base. It’s significant here because of bird migration through the Rio Grande Corridor.”

Recreation facilities on base can provide wildlife habitat, Reynolds said.

“Our golf course is a great resource for birds. Because of the ponds out there, it’s a real hotspot. That’s a good one, because it doesn’t conflict with our mission – it’s far enough away from the flight path.”

He called his position a dream job, and said it held some surprises for him.

“Just how big this base is, all the different ecosystems we have, and all the natural resources – the scope and scale of the program. Some people who work on Kirtland are not aware of how big the installation is – it almost reaches Tijeras on the eastern boundary.”

He said current work to thin combustible vegetation on base for fire management, while not disturbing bird nests or polluting arroyos, has multiple benefits.

“We’re making it safer, for fire risk. We’re improving security, because we’re making the roads usable as fire lines. Then there’s ecosystem restoration, including removal of invasive species, which use a considerable amount of water, and riparian restoration. We’ve seen a huge increase in mule deer coming in. I recently saw a Big Horn sheep – they come up from the Mountainair region, on the south side of the Manzanos.”

Reynolds expressed what he likes most about managing the natural and cultural resources program in support of Air Force activities.

“We’re working toward multiple objectives. It’s all overlapped so we’re able to support the mission. That’s how I try to look at each project: ‘How is this benefitting both the mission and natural resources?’ There’s a lot of nexus in between all these things. We have to review every project that happens on this base. The most rewarding part of my job is when we can work with project designers to ensure that there are no impacts to natural resources. Sometimes we can even improve conditions for natural resources, using creative designs to make that happen.”