Bombs and biology: sustaining Canada’s largest military training area

Article / September 21, 2016 / Project number: 16-0261

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By Jessica Caparini, Canadian Forces Base Suffield Public Affairs

Medicine Hat, Alberta  — When you think “simulated warzone,” you probably don’t think of the conservation efforts that allow that warzone’s environment to be suitable for use, year after year.

Corey Davidson is a Reclamation Biologist who works at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield, the largest military Range and Training Area (RTA) in the country. Throughout the year, British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian Armed Forces and their allies, use it to conduct live-fire training. After the tanks drive through and the bombs explode, it’s his job to assist in recovering the environment.

“Training is always first and foremost for us,” said Mr. Davidson. “We want to make sure that all the activities are allowed to happen, but we can shift those left or right to allow those activities to continue on but gain these environmental wins wherever we can.”

If the prairie wasn’t given time to recover, continued degradation would lead to a decreased capacity for training.

For the biologists on the RTA, every day in the field begins with a visit to Range Control, where they confirm that the areas they want to work in and the route they’re travelling don’t put them in danger.

Once in the field, they cannot use any machinery on the ground before conducting a search for unexploded ordnance. People have found unexploded weapons on the RTA from as far back as the 1940s, and contact from a plow or a seed drill could set them off.

In the RTA, Mr. Davidson does all sorts of things, from collecting native grass seeds for a seed inventory he can access when he needs to replant a certain make-up of vegetation, to monitoring the clean-up of an exploded armoured vehicle.

Working with BATUS means mitigating environmental distress, rather than completely preventing it. One way the biologists do this is by requesting that the British soldiers drive their tanks in single file during administrative moves, so there is only one set of tracks.

Similarly, Ben McWilliams, Range Biologist, focuses on understanding how disturbance affects grassland wildlife and their habitats, and makes recommendations to balance this disturbance.

This is in contrast to the preservation strategy that is common in parks and protected areas.

“It’s not what you’d expect, but military training appears to benefit some species,” he said.

Several Species at Risk at CFB Suffield prefer reduced vegetation structure caused by training activities. Examples of this include McCown’s and chestnut-collared longspurs, which are more abundant in areas that have burned recently.

The Range Sustainability Section, where Mr. Davidson and Mr. McWilliams work, was created in 2006, when the Base Commander at the time recognized a need for dedicated, skilled staff to take care of the RTA. The vast expanse of native prairie that covers the training area is an ideal place for military training, as native prairie has adapted over tens of thousands of years to regrow after it’s been disturbed by wildlife and fires. In many ways, the effects of off-road vehicles and training-caused fires are similar to historical disturbances caused by bison and lightning strikes.

“We want native prairie because we know that healthy native prairie can handle the pressure we put on it,” explained Mr. Davidson.

“There isn’t a lot of native prairie left in this province or the rest of this area, so wherever I can save a blade of grass, I think it’s a win for wildlife species as well as the people that live and work around CFB Suffield.”

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