© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Endangered Species Find A Peaceful Home On Land Used To Train For War

A section of the Big Piney River that runs through Fort Leonard Wood. This is one of the places that provides habitat to endandered species that live at the base. 10-02-19
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
A section of the Big Piney River that runs through Fort Leonard Wood. This is one of the places that provides habitat to endandered species that live at the base.

Fort Leonard Wood is home to more than 6,000 soldiers and at least three endangered species.

Those animals and two more that are threatened are protected and cared for despite living among shelling and other military training.

And scientists flock to the installation, saying it’s a boon to their research and gives them an opportunity to help these animals.

Fort Leonard Wood is the confirmed home of three endangered species: the spectaclecase mussel, the gray bat and the Indiana Bat. Also on base are two threatened species: the eastern hellbender salamander and the northern long-eared bat. 

Credit Keith Lott / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Indiana bat.

Kenton Lohraff, a wildlife biologist who works at the fort, said it’s the size of the installation and how it’s cared for that make it possible for struggling species to find a home.

“Fort Leonard Wood is more than 96 square miles — 10 miles of the Big Piney River and 10 miles of the Roubidoux creek run through it,” Lohraff said. “It’s because of the large area and being on federal property that a lot of these species find military bases as a refuge within the training lands that are out here.”

The Big Piney River is a perfect habitat for the eastern hellbender salamander, an aquatic animal that grows to be up to a foot long. He says it likes areas with moving water.

“And places where there is abundant habitat, like rocks and structures in the water,” Lohraff said.

Lohraff and other scientists from universities in Missouri and around the country have been working on protecting the eastern hellbender. Their projects have included raising young salamanders.

Ozark hellbenders are a subspecies found only in Missouri and Arkansas.
Credit Jill Utrup / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The eastern hellbender salamander.

“We reared them in captivity for five years , eggs from right here on Fort Leonard Wood. And once the hellbenders got to a certain size — it took five years, they grow pretty slowly — we brought them back and released them,” Lohraff said.

Dave Duvernell, chair of the biology department at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, is one of the scientists lending expertise and research time to species at Fort Leonard Wood. He is studying the water at the base to try to help the spectaclecase mussel. Having the fort close by has meant a lot to him and his students.

Credit Nick Rouse / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The spectaclecase mussel.

“It is a big opportunity that they are so close and interested in partnering and working on problems of mutual interest,” Duvernell said. “And it’s helping us launch new areas of research and study.”

Duvernell said it’s unusual to have such a large tract of land that is accessible and cared for, and it’s a boon to studying animal species that are in trouble. He says the military, explosions and all, doesn’t interfere with their work. 

Robin Verble, who also teaches biology at S&T, is looking for a moth called the rattlesnake-master borer, a threatened species that lives in North American grasslands. 

“Fort Leonard Wood is a strong possibility to be a place where we might be able to find it,” Verble said. “Most of the prairies in Missouri have been turned into agricultural fields or forests.”

Verble said the shelling at the base starts accidental fires frequently, which sounds like a problem.

“But it actually creates some of the best savannah habitat and tall grass prairie habitat that you’ll see a lot of times in the country,” Verble said.

Verble is working with Army officials to find her moth, and so far has an encouraging sign: They have confirmed the presence of the plant that is the main food for the moth.

While threatened and endangered species have found some refuge at the base, it’s not all good news. They are still in trouble, even in the confines of the fort. Despite the efforts, the spectaclecase mussel population is declining.

Credit Adam Mann / Environmental Solutions and Innovations
Environmental Solutions and Innovations
The gray bat.

“We’re struggling with finding a way to protect and enhance and improve habitat and population numbers for this species. So we are struggling just like everywhere else,” Lohraff said.

But he said Fort Leonard Wood will remain a strong place for these troubled species to have a chance, and for scientists to study them and look for ways to help. 

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org 

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.