Every year on the third Friday in May, people around the world observe Endangered Species Day. This day is a chance to learn about fish, wildlife, and plants in need of protection. For many U.S. Army Corps of Engineer employees, this day is another day in a career dedicated to preserving vulnerable wildlife and ecosystems.
USACE has one of the largest environmental missions in the federal government. The Kansas City District’s conservation biologists, environmental specialists, natural resource specialists, natural resource managers and park rangers see this day as a chance to educate others on the efforts they are making to protect endangered species on federal land.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service share the responsibility of administering the Endangered Species Act, which includes maintaining the federal endangered species list. Within the Kansas City District, there are many endangered animals like bats and whooping cranes. There are also other species besides animals, like Geocarpon minimum, a tiny green succulent. Despite the wide variety of endangered species in the district, for many species, the common denominator behind their decline is the same.
“The main reason a lot of these species are in decline … is loss of habitat,” said Kyle Ruona, a Kansas City District conservation biologist. “[The Kansas City District] manages… habitat that is essential to their existence.”
The lakes found in the western part of the district – Kanopolis, Wilson, Harlan County and Milford – are a few examples of the habitat USACE manages for endangered species. Located in areas with limited water resources, these lakes offer great stopover habitat to migrating whooping cranes.
“Whooping cranes migrate from northern Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and along the way, they need to stop and rest and roost overnight,” said Ruona. “Those lakes offer stopover habitat for them.”
Ryan Williams, a natural resource manager at Kanopolis Lake, explained the migration process for the cranes.
“Migration stays can range from overnight up to 18 days or more,” he said. “April [through] May, and then October [through] November is when they pass through.”
According to Williams, Kanopolis Lake was the temporary home for at least 2.2% of the world’s population of whooping cranes this spring.
Lakes are just one type of habitat that USACE works to protect and restore. A lesser-known type of habitat in USACE’s conservation program is a glade, specifically a channel sandstone glade, home to the geocarpon succulent. These glades are a special type of rock outcrop and are prevalent at Harry S Truman and Stockton Lakes in Missouri.
“Geocarpon thrives at the base of these rock outcrops, within depressions filled with dirt and sand,” said Derrick Phillips, an environmental specialist at Stockton Lake. “The plant itself is very small. It used to be more widespread, but habitat destruction has isolated it to these glades.”
In addition to habitat loss, USACE natural resource employees are also concerned with disease prevention. For example, at Harry S Truman Lake, employees work to protect various threatened and endangered bats from a disease known as white-nose syndrome. White-nose syndrome is an invasive fungus introduced to the U.S. approximately two decades ago and is killing bats at a significant rate.
Conservation efforts at Harry S Truman Lake project office include placing metal barriers over caves where bats live in order to prevent disruption, as well as monitoring a nearby levee pump system to ensure the caves do not flood in high-water events. Wildlife biologists also conduct surveillance and health studies to monitor the health and number of the bats. Larry Smith, a natural resource management specialist at Harry S Truman Lake, explained these efforts are not just for currently endangered bats, but also those they hope to prevent from becoming endangered.
“There are other species out there that are not on the threatened or endangered lists yet, but if this white-nose [syndrome] continues to spread or habitat is lost, we could see others added to that list,” said Smith.
According to Ruona, USACE’s conservation work comes in various lines of effort. One mainline effort is control of invasive species impacting the endangered species’ habitat. For example, USACE is working to stop the spread of a common grass known as Phragmites australis, which takes up the shoreline at the lakes, blocking visibility and deterring whooping cranes from roosting. Another line of effort is active habitat management, such as prescribed fire in areas that are dependent on natural disturbances. Integrated management practices like prescribed fire help sustain natural ecosystems, and require conservation workers to look at the problem set from multiple angles and with multiple considerations.
Partnerships and Monitoring Success
While carrying out these practices and monitoring their success, USACE works closely with state and other federal agencies. USACE employees manage the land and conduct annual surveys, while federal and state agencies monitor efforts and provide input. These federal and state agencies are critical partners in the effort to protect endangered species, helping USACE employees like Smith and his team to continue their work. Smith reflected on the efforts he and his team make every day for these endangered species.
“We’re out here monitoring them, we protect them, we try to get in budget packages to get funding to keep these areas maintained,” he said.
Throughout the year, Smith’s office develops budget requests to cover the cost of environmental stewardship, and he handles all the funding for Harry S Truman Lake to cover threatened and endangered species. Funding is an important piece in managing the land. This year, the Kansas City District received a total of $98,000 in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to support habitat management for endangered species. Additionally, $180,000 at Wilson Lake and $20,000 at Kanopolis Lake was funded through the Water Resources Development Act special funding to remove invasive aquatic plants degrading whooping crane stopover habitat.
Through funding efforts, active management and control of invasive species, Smith said they are doing what they can to keep these habitats as spaces where endangered species can thrive. The work they are doing is literally life or death for some of these species.
“Once we lose those species, they’re gone for good,” said Smith. “Once they get to that threatened or endangered species level, then it’s kind of like a warning sign to all of us, whether we’re state, federal, county or the private sector, that we need to [be proactive] to not lose the habitat. Once they get to the threatened or endangered species list, the next level is extinction and none of us want to see that happen.”
Ruona, Phillips, Williams and Smith all pointed towards the importance of habitat conservation in combatting the loss of species. Working for USACE, they are able to contribute to federal efforts to restore ecosystem structure and processes and protect endangered and threatened species. USACE continues to strive to manage land, resources and construction activities in a sustainable manner, and support protection activities to ensure the species on their lands continue to flourish.