Marines tear up Hawaii ponds for endangered birds

By Lance Cpl. Reece Lodder

KANEOHE (HawaiiNewsNow) - The spinning tracks of amphibious assault vehicles pierced still waters and sent mud flying as they tore up the Nuupia Ponds Wildlife Management Area during the annual Mud Ops exercise on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Feb. 22 to 24.

The 29-year-long Mud Ops tradition partnered Marines with Amphibious Assault Vehicle Platoon, Combat Assault Company, 3rd Marine Regiment, with the Marine Corps Base Hawaii Environmental Compliance and Protection Department. They prepared the 517-acre area for the upcoming breeding season of the endangered Hawaiian stilt bird species, which lasts from March until September.

"Our environmental staff has worked with partner agencies and the AAV unit for 29 years now to make this an annual, beneficial tradition for both the AAVs and the birds," said Diane Drigot, senior natural resource management specialist, Base Environmental. "The AAV drivers get a welcomed change in their training routine, and, as a result, the stilts get terrain more suitable for nesting and feeding."

Drigot said Mud Ops allows combat readiness and conservation to work together, showing "we can save costs while providing training beneficial to the Marines and conserving an endangered bird."

The plowing action of the AAVs forms a checkerboard mosaic of mud mounds surrounded by protective moats of water. This provides the birds cover from predators, controls invasive pickleweed growth that crowds the birds out of their natural habitat, and assures them better access to nesting and feeding grounds, Drigot said.

The wetlands on base provide a place for several dozen seabirds and shorebirds to feed and breed, including about 10 percent of the approximately 1,500 Hawaiian stilts native to the state. In recent years, Base Environmental's counts of the species here have numbered between 130 and 160 birds, a significant increase since the count of 60 in 1982, the year Mud Ops began.

Besides Nuupia Ponds, Drigot said these species thrive in protected wetlands behind the Military Police Department, at the Klipper Golf Course, Sag Harbor, Hale Koa Beach, and the percolation ditch behind the Combat Logistics Battalion 3 motor pool compound.

"We have improved many of these man-made wetlands under specially funded projects to expand their ability to support endangered and migratory birds," Drigot said.

Though Hawaii offers few areas in which the AAV Platoon can train, the ponds' mud and terrain provide a beneficial training atmosphere that is close to home, said Lance Cpl. Geoffrey Munroe, an AAV mechanic with AAV Platoon, CAC.

"Mud Ops is a win-win situation," said Munroe, from Grafton, Mass. "We get our tracks into the mud, complete some refresher training, and in doing so, provide the birds a place to nest."

The four AAVs used in the exercise were 26-ton, fully-tracked amphibious landing vehicles. They are typically used to deliver the surface assault Marines of a landing force and their equipment in a single lift, and to conduct mechanized operations and related combat support in subsequent operations ashore.

"Mud Ops provides us the opportunity to be good stewards of the environment and ensure our AAV Marines have the chance to train," said Capt. Derek George, director, Base Environmental.

"They may not ever get the chance to improve an endangered species' habitat again, so it's an experience these Marines can remember for the rest of their lives," said George, from Portsmouth, Va.