45 SW protects natural assets

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Alicia Wallace
  • 45th Space Wing Public Affairs
You probably would never guess that the same place that launches our nation's vital communications satellites into space is also the home to an abundance of wildlife.

The relative seclusion of the 16,000 acres that make up Cape Canaveral Air Force Station creates a prime location to protect state and federally protected species.

"There are approximately 40 state and federally protected species found on CCAFS", said Michael Blaylock, Chief of Natural Assets, 45th Civil Engineer Squadron. "As required by the Sikes Act, the Department of Defense must protect these species and their habitat."

Additionally, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies are required to consider the potential impacts of their proposed actions on the environment and identify reasonable alternatives to those actions.

The 45th Space Wing has a staff of six biologists and one archaeologist that provide the federally mandated role of protection and management of wildlife, their habitat, and cultural resources, which include historic properties and archaeological sites on Patrick Air Force Base and CCAFS.

Historically, one of the primary concerns has been the impact to sea turtles from exterior lighting at both installations.

"Lighting visible on the beach can deter sea turtles from coming ashore to nest and also causes hatchlings to orient in the wrong direction, impeding their ability to locate the water", said Angy Chambers, the wing's lead wildlife biologist. "This disorientation often results in mortality." Current 45th Space Wing lighting policies have drastically reduced the number of sea turtle disorientations.

Currently, three species of sea turtles nest on CCAFS; the loggerhead, the green and the leatherback, said Blaylock. The loggerhead, a federally threatened species, deposits approximately 2,000 nests annually on CCAFS; the green, federally listed as endangered, deposits approximately 150 nests; and the leatherback, also federally listed as endangered, deposits 5-10 nests annually.

Both CCAFS and PAFB beaches are core index nesting beaches, which means the data collected on these beaches is used to develop overall population trends.

"This was a record year for green sea turtle nesting," said Martha Carroll, the Sea Turtle Program Manager and biologist for the 45th Space Wing. "This year we documented 335 green sea turtle nests! The last record was 163 in 2005. This increase in green nesting is being observed state-wide and may indicate that 30+ years of conservation efforts are beginning to pay off.'

Other protected species found on the Cape include the Florida Scrub- Jay, Southeastern Beach Mouse, Gopher Tortoise, Eastern Indigo Snake and the Florida Manatee.

"There are two very effective methods used to protect endangered species at the cape," said Don George, 45th Space Wing habitat management lead. "Controlled fires not only reduce the chances of a catastrophic wildfire, but they mimic the natural wildfire cycle that maintains scrub habitat, which is crucial to scrub-jay and gopher tortoise reproduction and survival. The other method, mechanical treatment and invasive species removal, results in the ability for native vegetation to thrive, which is also crucial to these species."

Natural resource personnel have helped protect manatees by rescue of injured animals and assistance with release of formerly injured manatees into protected waters near CCAFS. The latest rescue involved an orphaned manatee calf found on the CCAFS beach. This calf is currently being cared for by Sea World in Orlando.

In addition to protection of wildlife at CCAFS, the team is also responsible for protecting historic cultural assets.

"The Cape alone contains ancient Native American burial mounds, a lighthouse dating back to the 1800s, and rocket crash sites that date back as far as the first launch," said Tom Penders, 45th Space Wing Archaeologist.

"It is our job to ensure that we balance the need to complete the mission with protecting our environment," said Blaylock.