AUGUSTA, Mich. – The Michigan National Guard's Fort Custer Training Center (FCTC) is getting attention for its stewardship of the environment.
FCTC stood out from other National Guard bases to win first place in the National Guard Bureau's natural resources for small installations category.
Fort Custer's environmental program relies on technology, enabling it to track airborne fauna.
"We're looking at using acoustical monitoring to identify the types of wildlife population we have here," said Curt Roebuck, environmental manager at FCTC.
Another tool, the Motus radio telemetry tracking device, tracks animals at three locations throughout southwest Michigan.
"Anything that flies over the tracking device and has a radio tag on it is recorded," said Michele Richards, natural resources manager for FCTC. "Because of this, we're finding unique bird species."
She said an American redstart and a Swainson's thrush, which were thought to have migrated out of Michigan, flew over Fort Custer.
"We want to do this across the state so there is an east-to-west beltline that will allow us to record anything that flies over the south-central portion of Michigan," she said.
FCTC has been recognized in the past by not only the U.S. Army but also the Department of Defense for its environmental preservation. With first-place rankings in the training center's pedigree, it continues to build up the program as a leader within the oldest branch of service.
"Fort Custer helped to create the Michigan Climate Coalition (MCC) and because of this, it was appointed as the U.S. Army choice for their required adaptation pilot project," said Richards. "We partnered with the MCC, consisting of about 15 different climate policy fellows, groups and organizations; spoke with community members, regional representation, and various subject matter experts in climate change, and educated people on how adaptation can happen."
Methods in the environmental program evolve as the base adapts ways to enhance the surroundings.
"One technique is using prescribed fire," said Richards. "Our burns restore the ecology and the function within the natural communities that we work in."
Prescribed fires also have a financial benefit.
"Having an efficient and effective fire program prevents range fire outbreaks and saves money," said Richards. "Almost all of the systems in southern Michigan are fire-adapted and require regular fire within them to maintain their health."
"Fire is an inexpensive way to maintain habitats as well as the military mission, and without prescribed fire, we lose biological diversity," she said.
In addition to the fire program, state-of-the-art technology has increased efficiency and safety in identifying things that live or pass through the training grounds.
"FCTC became the first National Guard base to use environmental DNA (eDNA) collection in wildlife monitoring," said Richards. "This means they collect eDNA from the environment instead of from the animal."
Water or soil samples can show what animal or plant has passed through, she said. Before eDNA, methods were more extreme and more expensive.
"In the past, we would monitor aquatic organisms, fish, etc., by electroshocking the water," said Richards. "We would identify and quantify what rose to the surface and then release the specimens into the water."
Managing the 7,570-acre training ground offers challenges as precipitation changes the ecosystem.
"We know we are going to have higher temperatures in all seasons, less precipitation in summer and more in the fall and spring and we have less snow cover and more ice precipitation," said Richards. "This impacts a variety of things as we manage the environment as a whole."
The mission of the National Guard is to train to fight. Without natural resources management, training would be more difficult due to vegetation overgrowth.
"The natural resource management benefits the military training mission, too," said Richards. "We make training physically accessible while reducing the understory (underlying vegetation) of shrubs. We also maintain training by ensuring all environmental laws are followed to the letter."
Others echoed the importance of environmental conservation and its impact on training and readiness.
"The high-quality work Fort Custer's environmental office does every day is phenomenal," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark McNeill, commander, Fort Custer Training Center, Michigan Army National Guard. "We take our role in increasing force readiness very seriously – it's imperative we conduct our mission with environmentally sound stewardship.
"This is a long term commitment. We have been here for over 100 years, so we need to be responsible and protect the resource for our future," McNeill said.
Acting on plans now while keeping their long-term vision in focus helps set sustainable goals for the future.
"We have our eyes down the road 50 years and what's it going to look like," said Richards. "We are helping animals, insects, plants and systems adapt to a very different atmosphere."
The environmental work at Fort Custer is also aiming to bring back a rare gem on the federal endangered species list.
"We're in the beginning stages of working with fisheries and wildlife to reintroduce a federally endangered butterfly: the Mitchell's satyr butterfly," said Roebuck.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website, the Mitchell's satyr is one of the world's rarest butterflies, found only in Michigan and Indiana.
"It is imperative to see our environmental office recognized for their efforts to facilitate high-quality training in an environmentally responsible manner and co-use the land for endangered species research," McNeill said. "I am extremely proud of their accomplishments and recognition from the National Guard Bureau."
"They help us use the resource smartly and they also use it to further research and support endangered species," he said.