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Bombs give way to birds in Indiana

Jefferson Proving Ground
Once a no man's land, Jefferson Proving Ground is now important wildlife habitat  

By Environmental News Network staff

An area once dedicated to developing means of destruction has been honored for its importance in wildlife conservation and the preservation of threatened species.

Jefferson Proving Ground in southeast Indiana, a former U.S. Army ordnance testing site and now home to Henslow's sparrows and other birds, has been named a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. The designation was announced by the Army and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which assists the Army in managing fish and wildlife resources at the 51,000-acre area.

"Jefferson Proving Ground, as a part of America's arsenal, has served a key role in the preservation of democracy and the freedoms we so richly enjoy," said Maj. Gen. John Longhouser, commanding general, U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command.

"It is time to begin the process to convert this real estate to more peaceful purposes. This agreement provides the opportunity for an enhanced level of ecosystem-based management and study while the Army and the service address long-term natural resource management," Longhouser said.

"While an active base, Jefferson Proving Ground served a critical role in safeguarding the people of the United States. It is now serving an equally important function in safeguarding the natural heritage of this country," said John Blankenship, assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"This agreement represents a one-of-a-kind opportunity to conserve and manage some of the Midwest's finest forest and grassland habitats. I commend the Army for its vision in recognizing the value of the resources within the borders of Jefferson Proving Ground," Blankenship said.

Henslow's sparrow
During the breeding season, Henslow's sparrows have very specific habitat requirements  

Jefferson Proving Ground was recognized by the conservancy because of its importance to the Henslow's sparrow. Like many grassland-dependent birds across the nation, the Henslow has suffered drastic population declines. Loss of its grassland nesting habitat has reduced Henslow numbers by an estimated 8 percent a year over the past three decades.

The site provides breeding habitat for one of the five largest remaining Henslow's sparrow populations in the world, about 751 breeding pairs, according to the conservancy.

During the breeding season, Henslow's sparrows have very specific habitat requirements. They are mostly found in fallow fields supporting tall, dense grassy and weedy cover with a high density of standing dead vegetation as well as scattered bushes or very small trees. When not singing, Henslow's sparrows skulk through the grassy vegetation and are rarely seen.

Jefferson Proving Ground was an active Army munitions testing facility for cartridges, propellants, bombs, grenades and high explosives from the early 1940s until 1994. In 1995, it was closed under the Base Realignment and Closure Act. Since then, 4,000 acres at the south end of the area have been turned over to industrial and commercial uses. Portions of the remaining 51,000 acres, which remain Army property, are off limits to most uses due to danger from unexploded ordnance.

Under a 1997 Memorandum of Agreement that continues until October 1999, the service is assisting the Army in managing the vast natural resources on this portion of the site.

Although a seemingly unlikely spot for wildlife, Jefferson Proving Ground is an oasis of habitat amid the region's farmlands and urban areas. The Army's testing practices actually promoted creation of wildlife habitat on much of the property.

Some procedures periodically set fires to large open areas. Here, burns mimicked the natural fires that once maintained the open prairies of the Midwest. It is on these "accidental" prairies at the proving ground that the Henslow's sparrow has found needed grassland nesting habitat.

In addition to the valuable grasslands within the proving ground's boundaries, the area includes 11,000 acres of forest, the largest continuous forest block in southeastern Indiana, and one of the largest in the lower Midwest region of the United States.

Large, unfragmented areas of forest are important to forest interior songbirds, which cannot thrive in smaller, scattered patches of forest. For many neotropical migrant songbirds -- those that winter in Central and South America -- the proving ground's forests provide the only productive breeding habitat in the region. Woodlands at the site are also an important stronghold for the federally endangered Indiana bat.

The American Bird Conservancy is a U.S.-based, not-for-profit organization that promotes conservation of wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.

The organization identifies and recognizes so-called "important bird areas" and fosters cooperative efforts among scientists, bird watchers, public agencies, industries, non-governmental organizations and educators.

The conservancy also participates in the Partners in Flight program, an international effort to conserve songbirds, and supports management and research for bird conservation.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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