- Associated Press - Monday, September 1, 2014

LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) - With the reverberation of an F-16 strafing a nearby target in the air, Dane Ward sets a northern pine snake onto the concrete at Warren Grove Gunnery Range.

The snake isn’t fazed by the flyover. The concrete, however, is a challenge, as the serpent folds into an S-curve to propel itself forward.

“Most people are familiar with that classic S-shape because they only see snakes crossing roads,” Ward, a Ph.D. student from Drexel University, told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/Y5SkzW). “On sand, it moves more or less in a straight line.”

Warren Grove may seem like an unlikely place to study snake behavior, but the military installation has become a sanctuary for many threatened and endangered species because it has been cut off from development since it opened during World War II.

Ward has studied the pine snake and found that of 3,872 habitat patches - sections of habitat isolated by roadways - only 156 statewide are capable of supporting a population of between three and five adult snakes. Warren Grove is home to one of the largest known pine snake populations in the state.

The problem, he said, is that it takes the pine snake an average of two minutes to cross a two-lane road such as nearby Route 539. During the summer tourist season, 68 vehicles may cross the snake’s path during that time. Most snakes native to the Pinelands face the same danger, he said.

“A lot of people think that’s not a lot of time,” he said, “but the odds are against the snake.”

Drexel University faculty and students have studied this vast expanse of pine land at the intersection of Barnegat, Little Egg Harbor and Stafford townships since 1999.

“People are really fascinated by our work,” said Marilyn Sobel, a environmental studies doctoral student and associate teaching professor. “Professors will come up and talk to me about it. They think we’re out here dodging things.”

Researchers will typically head out early in the morning to a site far away from the training exercises, she said. They must call in to ensure it is safe to return when their work is finished. On days when no exercises are scheduled, they’re able to go onto the training areas as well.

Most of Sobel’s time here has been dedicated to the Knieskern’s beaked-rush, a grass-like plant seldom found outside the range. It benefits from the military’s intensive fire management program. In more populated areas, she said, communities have suppressed the natural forest fire process that would clear away excess vegetation and provide ideal habitat for the federally protected plant.

“In 2013, they burned a really hot, intense burn that killed off everything in one of my five sites,” she said. The beaked-rush “came back very strong - something like 60 percent of the biomass in that area.”

“That’s our baby,” Maj. Rich DeFeo said of the beaked-rush. Such loving anthropomorphism may seem odd coming from a man wearing the golden oak leaf insignia on his epaulets.

Historically, the military hasn’t always been known for environmental stewardship. Navy testing during and after World War II contributed in part to a portion of the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center being declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, DeFeo serves as environmental manager for the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, which oversees Warren Grove.

“Times are changing,” DeFeo said. “In the ‘70s, the military was known for certain acts, but we’re not the bad guy on the block anymore.”

A lot of that started with the Sikes Act, which required military installations such as Warren Grove to include ecosystems in their planning. Each year, DeFeo said, the government gives the university $100,000 or more to perform studies of plant and animal life on the range. In addition to performing counts of various species, the university hosts grade-school classes in a Quonset hut to teach children about Pinelands ecology. Last year, the range was awarded the Gen. White Natural Resources Conservation Award against strong competition from installations across the U.S. Air Force.

After more than 14 years, Drexel faculty and students led by Walter Bien are on a first-name basis with the officers stationed at Warren Grove.

When asked about about all the snakes on the range, Master Sgt. Anthony Boccelli says he’s not afraid of them. “I just don’t care for them,” he said.

“The other day, as I was moving something,” Boccelli said, motioning like he was lifting a heavy container, “one of them jumped right up at me.” With this, Boccelli jumps up in exaggerated fright and laughs.

“You’d be surprised,” Bien said. “With all of the things these guys deal with, some of them are bothered by these little snakes.”

More important than serving as a classroom, laboratory and sanctuary of sorts, Bien said the work being done here has led to some real changes. The range, for example, changed its mowing schedule to avoid destroying native grasses during the growing season. Last year, the South Jersey Transportation Authority installed culverts under portions of the Atlantic City Expressway to provide a crossing area for snakes and other wildlife.

Ward said the hope is that research conducted at Warren Grove will lead to more positive changes, such as directing development to less sensitive areas and restricting new roads through the Pinelands that would further subdivide snake habitat. Someday, there may be more large areas like Warren Grove where the snakes can thrive.

DeFeo points out that one snake den sits in the woods below the range’s observation tower where observers relay target results to pilots.

“They don’t mind planes - just people,” he said. “There’s no shopping malls or highways around here, so it’s like a vacation for them.”

___

Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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