Canadian Forces Base Suffield biologist is on a mission to maintain ecology in military training areas

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Article / May 14, 2019 / Project number: 19-0149

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By Natalie Finnemore, CFB Suffield Public Affairs

Ralston, Alberta — As soldiers train to assume the duties of Canada’s high-readiness brigade that deploys on operations around the world, the ground they train on must be maintained at all times, not only for training purposes, but also to conserve local animal and plant life.

Corey Davidson, a Reclamation Biologist at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield, is one of the people who helps makes this happen.

When most people think of military training areas, they might form a mental picture of soldiers in the field on an exercise with armoured vehicles rolling over the terrain and plenty of explosions, but what they don’t know about are all those behind-the-scenes people who keep a training range alive and well after repeated use.

Mr. Davidson, along with the Range Sustainability team at CFB Suffield, plays a critical role in conserving the prairie ecosystem of the country’s largest military training area, located in southeastern Alberta.

“This position is quite interesting because it’s so varied on the type of projects that come across my desk,” Mr. Davidson said. “One day I could be looking at a proposal to use weed-free hay to create a target location, to looking at contaminates on the ground, to looking at biological control for invasive species.”

His area of expertise is known as reclamation, which focuses on recovering the ground following any disturbance caused by military activities. Since he joined the base team in 2006, he has assisted with the removal and ground recovery of a grenade range, removal of an historical unapproved landfill site, and the restoration of the ground after vehicle breakdowns where fuel spills occurred. 

There’s no other workplace like it

CFB Suffield has a massive 2,658 square kilometre training area, which is about half the size of Prince Edward Island. For biologists like Mr. Davidson, it’s a prairie oasis full of surprises just waiting to be explored.

“Even the element of working in and around the military – you’re out on the range and a helicopter will fly over because they’re doing a survey of the area prior to their next exercise. It’s an interesting place to work where I don’t think anywhere else in the world you could see these kinds of wonders [as a biologist].”

Mr. Davidson lives for what he calls the “small wins,” such as recovering a section of land after an exercise. This is something that seems small but actually requires a considerable amount of effort to accomplish. It can have positive effects for wildlife and improves the resiliency of the land against training pressures.

Recovering the ground involves doing a desktop review of the information that is known about the site and then going out to check for potential contaminants in soil samples. He may have to remove and replace topsoil to re-seed an area to aid in its recovery for future military training as well as for environmental reasons.

Must consider the possibility of live explosives in the ground

Additionally, there are unique challenges that biologists face on a military training area that they wouldn’t have to consider elsewhere.

“It’s tough to put a plough or a seed drill in the ground because you have to consider unexploded ordnance. On other properties, you wouldn’t have to consider that.”

He works closely with the military engineers on the base to do some of the heavy lifting involved with moving debris or topsoil to another location. He even uses some of the equipment, such as excavators and front-end loaders, to do some of that heavy lifting himself.

The recovery work doesn’t stop with military training because the CFB Suffield training area is also host to defence research and other private industry activities such as cattle grazing and oil and gas development.

“We understand from research that a healthy native prairie can withstand pressures that we put on it, so whether it’s military exercises or cattle grazing or the oil and gas industry, the pressures we put on that land are more reversible if we have healthy prairie,” he said.

One of the things that keeps him enjoying his work is that he is always learning new skills on the job, whether that is conducting new types of tests for contaminates or learning to operate new machinery.

Passing on a legacy of learning

For Mr. Davidson, passing on his love for learning is a legacy he shares with his children.

“I have four bright and wonderful children, and I’ve often tried to instill in them a desire to experience the natural world around them.”

Even a simple walk in the park becomes an outdoor exploration trip for Mr. Davidson and his family. He can’t pass up a teaching opportunity when he spots a unique plant species while out on a nature walk with them.

He seized the opportunity to bring his daughter, Alexis Davidson, to the base in November 2018 for Take Our Kids To Work Day.  During her visit to CFB Suffield, she had the chance to conduct practice experiments and try out some of the tools her dad uses on the job every day.

“He is always trying to explain stuff to us. When we go out for a walk, he’ll say, ‘Oh, look at that type of grass!’ or, ‘Oh, that’s that plant species of plant!’ He just gets so excited about everything, and tries to make everything exciting for us,” she said.

“I like learning about sciences, it’s one of my favourite subjects in school, so it’s cool to see what he does at the base.”

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