Army civilian biologist Lance Tominaga inspects an endangered Silene lanceolata plant, seen in the center between the two rocks, at the Pohakuloa Training Area. Also called the "fly catcher" because of its sticky flowers, the plant is one of 11 endangered species found on the Army training site on the Big Island. The orange fencing is to protect the plant from feral pigs, goats and sheep.
Army team defends rare plants
Fire and feral animals present the biggest threats to struggling species at Pohakuloa
POHAKULOA TRAINING AREA, Hawaii » The twisted skeletonlike trunks and branches of ohia trees stretch in every direction to the horizon, but a small group of people is intent on one tiny green sprout protected by a circle of wire fence.
It is one of only 155 known Hedyotis coriacea, or kioele, plants that remain, and it is a focal point of the Pohakuloa Training Area's environmental team.
Just finding it is a major accomplishment for the team of 16 Army biologists, botanists and horticulturists.
"Surveying for plants is a real skill," said Darryl York, chief biologist at the Army's 110,000-acre training area in the middle of the Big Island. "We have a special commitment to work in this area. The Army is really proactive and supportive."
The area, home to more threatened and endangered species than any other military installation, is shaped roughly like a big wedge, with headquarters at the apex and large swaths of conservation area extending along each side.
The middle is used for live-fire exercises and combat training.
York and fellow biologist Lance Tominaga recently led a tour through the dry-land ohia forest to highlight how the Army is preserving, protecting and managing the cultural and natural resources.
During the 20-minute drive from headquarters, herds of feral goats could be seen springing across the uneven lava and through the brush.
"This really is about as desolate as it gets," York said.
The dry-land ohia forest sits at about 6,000 feet above sea level and gets about 10 inches of rain annually. York and his crew still do not know what these conditions mean to the various plants they have identified.
When a rare or endangered plant is identified, the crew erects a bright orange protective fence and clears other vegetation from the area. It is time-consuming, hot, back-wrenching work, but it needs to be done three or four times a year to ensure the plant is not overrun.
In many cases, seeds or samples are rushed to the greenhouse back at headquarters. Biologists also send samples to another location, to ensure all existing plants are not destroyed if there is a catastrophic fire, earthquake or volcanic eruption.
The goal for York and his crew is to grow enough specimens in the greenhouse to allow them to be replanted in the wild. More than 3,000 plants have been planted across the Pohakuloa Training Area.
"We don't know if this is the historical range (for these plants). All we know now is this is where it's found," he said. "After 200 years of unrestricted grazing ... we just don't know what it used to be like."
Eleven endangered plant species are found on the grounds. Also on the endangered list are one mammal, the Hawaiian hoary bat, and three birds, the Hawaiian goose, or nene, the Hawaiian owl, or pueo, and the petrel.
In the 11 years since the Army's Natural Resource Program began, none of the endangered plants has become extinct, and one -- Silene hawaiiensis -- is thriving and moving toward being removed from the threatened list.
The biggest dangers faced by the flora and fauna are wildfires and herbivore feasters, including pigs, goats, sheep, cats and rodents.
Two major protection projects are planned. Both are part of the Environmental Impact Statement prepared ahead of the military bringing in Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, a division of lightweight, high-speed armored vehicles.
Fountain grass, an invasive weed that crops up in bunches on the lava landscape and eventually covers much of the ground, is excellent fuel for a fire.
"It's one of the huge problems," York said, "especially because nobody eats it."
In addition to destroying native forest, wildfires create barren open spaces that invasive species take advantage of, crowding out the more delicate native plants.
The Army spends a great deal of time controlling weeds in the conservation area, including manual weed-pulling and chemical spraying.
Also this summer, a crew of six will begin erecting a fence around 2,300 acres -- in addition to the 7,000 acres already protected by fencing -- in an effort to keep out feral goats, sheep, cats, rodents and other critters that can easily munch vulnerable plants out of existence.