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Rooting balsam on the joint base

Oak savannah landscapes an on-going environmental mission

The prairie landscapes change quickly in the spring from the dull winter colors to a soft flower meadow full of varied plants on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Cathy Hamilton-Wissmer, Joint Base Lewis-McChord Directorate of Public Works

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD - Joint Base Lewis-McChord is home to one of the rarest ecosystems in the country, the South Sound prairie. These landscapes were created by retreating glaciers 15,000 years ago, which left behind gravelly soils that dried out quickly during summer droughts.

These grass and wildflower dominated landscapes provide habitat for the federally-endangered Taylor's checkerspot (Euphydryas editha taylori), Mazama pocket gopher (Thomomys mazama), streaked horned lark (Eremophila alpestris strigata), federally-threatened golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) as well as more common species such as native bunchgrasses, western meadowlark (Sturnelia neglecta) and a large suite of prairie and oak associated butterflies.

Everywhere the Olympia, Roy Prairie, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers occur, they occupy prairie-like habitat - areas that are relatively open, with short-statured vegetation and few woody plants. The greatest threat to Mazama pocket gophers in Washington is the loss, fragmentation and degradation of suitable habitat.

Rod Gilbert, JBLM biologist, used drip irrigation for balsam root plants grown by partners at the Center for Natural Lands Management, now Eco-Studies Institute.

"We are trying to establish Puget Sound balsam root, which can take 7 years to flower in the wild," he said.

After two years of irrigation, the beautiful, sunflower-looking plants to benefit the Taylor's checkerspot are established.

"Oak savannah is the rarest of the South Sound prairie landscapes," Gilbert said "It's hard to know how many plants were here historically. We have been working to restore one, 17-acre site to the highest quality prairie we can. JBLM burns the prairie and treats with glyphosate to prevent forbes (grass).

"It creates open pockets to seed and plant plugs of native plants. Fescue will create a mat that will keep out most weeds."

Many species of birds and animals thrive in the rare oak savannah habitat: Elk browse, chipping sparrow, white crowned sparrow, meadowlark, western bluebird, Lazuli bunting, among others.

Invasive vegetation, such as Scotch broom and grass, is a major cause of prairie habitat loss. To control these invasive plants, JBLM staff uses a combination of techniques including spot spraying and targeted herbicide application, mowing, hand-pulling weeds and prescribed fires.

Fire is a vital component of South Sound prairie ecology. Fire removes undesirable vegetation and encourages new plant growth. As a result, a healthier landscape develops and attracts more diverse wildlife.

JBLM supports military training while also hosting 90% of the remaining prairie habitat in the South Puget Sound. Through the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership, the Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Defense work with a variety of partners to promote working lands, protect wildlife species and habitat and ensure military readiness at the base.

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