Allegedly Endangered Antelope Hinders Air Force Training

As the Navy prepares to pull out of its most crucial bombing range, in Vieques, Puerto Rico, the Air Force is wrangling with Endangered Species Act regulations that curtail its activities at its most important training range.

Endangered and threatened species on the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona have severely affected pilot training, and the situation for these species in the area is only expected to worsen-which could lead to further training disruptions.

"The range complex is the nation’s second-largest military reservation," says the Air Force. "All of the F-15E and A-10 aircrews and half of the F-16 pilots that flew during the Gulf War were trained on the Goldwater Range. Most of the Navy’s F-18 and Marine Corps’ AV-8 pilots trained on the range as well."

"We have other encroachment issues, but our primary concern is endangered species," said Teresa Nelson, a civilian Air Force public affairs officer. For example, Sonoran pronghorn, an endangered subspecies (the entire species of pronghorn is not endangered, with a population of almost one million members), roam the range. Before a bombing run, biologists must scout the relevant portion of the range. If just one of these antelope is sighted within 5 kilometers of a target area, say range rules, "no high explosive ordnance deliveries will be authorized on the affected range and no deliveries of any kind will be made within 3 km of the sightings for the remainder of the day."

Sometimes, whole portions of the range are closed to training for months at a time. For example, every year "the Mohawk Valley is closed for the pronghorn’s fawning season," said Fred Daniel, a civilian Marine Corps environmental staff member. The Marines manage some of the range. The season runs from March to July, he said.

"In the past three years, more than 30% of the scheduled live-drop missions were either canceled or moved to alternate target areas" because of the pronghorn, Air Force Gen. Donald Cook told a House committee last March.

The situation on the range could get worse. According to a biological opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on December 17, numerous development projects and "Border Patrol operations and illegal activities along the border in the Yuma area" threaten the habitat bordering the range, which could make the range even more valuable for preserving endangered species.

In addition, a drought has decimated the local Sonoran pronghorn population, now estimated at 21 to 33. Though the range is 2.7 million acres, the pronghorn like to congregate wherever bombing takes place because the torn ground harbors tender plants and watering holes, says Fish and Wildlife.

This year, the Pentagon is expected to renew its push for the relaxation of a broad range of environmental laws that hamper its activities. Four years ago, when Congress was considering transferring land management of the range to the military, Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) wanted to impose conditions. "Despite broad agreement to transfer land management responsibilities to the military, concerns remained among the environmental community as well as local interests," said McCain in a Nov. 19, 1999, press release.

McCain agreed to sponsor legislation to require the Department of Interior and the Department of Defense to jointly evaluate various land management scenarios that could be considered for future management of the range. "The primary intent of this comprehensive study is to provide information to guide the administration and Congress in taking appropriate future action ensuring that the cultural and natural resources on the range will continue to be preserved and protected in the future," said McCain at the time.

The senator’s office did not respond to several calls last week seeking his position on relaxing the range’s environmental restrictions today.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), who reportedly is pondering a primary challenge to McCain in 2004, fully supports easing environmental restrictions on the military, said spokesman Matthew Specht. The pronghorn "is just one case where an endangered species is disrupting training out West," he said.