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PHOTO CAPTION:  A mother barn owl sits safely on her nest in the nearly 35-foot positioning tower at the Antenna Test Facility on the U.S. Army Electronic Proving Ground, where three owlets matured to take flight at the end of this summer.

October 29, 2013
By Capt. Ray Ragan

FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. - Nesting owls at the U.S. Army Electronic Proving Ground's Antenna Test Facility proved a challenge when found earlier in the summer for Army testers. However, testers met the challenge with the right balance of staying mission-oriented, while being good stewards of the environment.

USAEPG has a complex mission, one that includes testing the Army's command and control systems, networks, among other technology-based systems. These networks and systems often have an antenna for transmitting and receiving voice and data. The ATF is the only Army test facility that allows testers to assess these antennas in the open air for what engineers call a "ground-truth" evaluation of an antenna.

The ATF was set to start a refurbishment contract of the compact range, a range for measuring microwave antennas as they would appear over long distances. Microwave antennas are commonly found in both military and civilian communication systems. The pre-refurbishment inspection revealed a mother barn owl and a clutch of eggs in the compact range's nearly 35-foot positioning tower, explained ATF Range chief, Doug Kremer.

Kremer and his team notified USAEPG's chief of Safety, Health and Environmental Risk Division, Luz E. Chinea and others within USAEPG of the surprise discovery.

"First I asked Doug what kind of owl it is, because depending on the species the length of incubation varies. I talked to the garrison [Fort Huachuca] wildlife person, to let them know we have an owl.

"That's how the whole process got started," Chinea said.

The nesting owl was a barn owl, a protected migratory species. The USAEPG team learned that the owl would need 60 to 90 days to allow her brood to mature to the point of flight and viability.

"We alerted the contractor that the contract [work on the positioning tower] would have to wait until the owls have indeed flown away," said Kremer.

The contractor shifted to other projects while the owlets matured. For about the next 60 days, USAEPG team members checked on the nest periodically without disturbing the nest, as requested by the garrison wildlife person, noting developmental milestones like when the chicks hatched.

"In that time, the owls flew and I notified everybody that the owls were capable of sustaining flight. We started to find baby barn owls all over the compound. We kept track of where they were so they wouldn't get hurt. Then purchasing notified the contractor that he could resume his mission to work on the positioning system," Kremer said.

With work resuming on the positioning tower and the USAEPG team started to look for ways to ensure that the positioning tower wouldn't be attractive to future nesting owls.

"We are sharing the environment with the wildlife, but at the same time, we're trying to do all our best to ensure they have a safe haven and we can do our mission as well," said Chinea.

The team at USAEPG consulted with wildlife experts and found that they best way to ensure the owls wouldn't return to the positioning tower was to install hardware cloth over the openings.

"Owls are important wildlife species to the health and diversity of southeastern Arizona," said Les Corey, executive director with the Tucson-based Arizona Wilderness Coalition, a statewide organization that advocates for the protection and restoration of Arizona's wilderness lands and native wildlife.

"We commend the Army at the Electronic Proving Ground for being sensitive to the owl's short term needs on the base and recognizing the careful balance that is struck between human activity and natural cycles of wildlife here," concluded Corey.