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Behind the Lines at Robins: Air Force vs. the Wild

2:07 PM, Jul 26, 2013   |    comments
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Robins Air Force Base is Georgia's largest industrial complex.

Enormous hangars, jet engines, and thousands of people dominate its landscape.

So it may surprise you that more than a third of its 7,000 acres are swamp or timber.

It's the work of Natural Resources manager Bob Sargent to define the boundary between military progress and the native habitat.

In Bob Sargent's office, sunlight through a canopy of water tupelos replaces the glare of fluorescent overhead lights. The whir of cicadas stands in for ringing telephones, and his co-workers, they stick to their own business.

"It's like having a wildlife refuge in the backyard of the place you go to the office everyday," says Sargent.

His schedule on this July morning includes a meeting with familiar territory. He nails open cans of sardines to the trunks and pours out juice.

It ripens in the summer heat for a few weeks, the odor beckoning area black bears.

"They'll try to snatch them off the tree. A better word is 'rip' them off the tree," Sargent says.

The evidence of snacking helps measure the bear population and the likelihood of them mixing with people.

It's happened before.

Sargent says, "About 10 years ago, we had one get in a tree about 100 yards from the commander's house one morning. No idea why he was there."

Sargent helped the wayward bear to safer territory, sheltering man from beast and beast from man. That's the balance Sargent strikes.

"Sometimes conserving, managing these species means removing some of them, like trapping feral hogs or managing the deer hunts on base or cutting down trees in urban areas," explains Sargent.

The overabundant hog population frequently dredges landscapes, forcing the placement of large traps in conspicuous locations.

"We've seem them be very brazen and even go to places like the Commissary or Burger King," he says.

The allure of a free meal makes catching them easy, at least compared with another species that occasionally oversteps its boundaries.

Sargent says, "They end up in silly public areas. Last year, we had one at the Base gym between the walkways in a lawn. Everybody's standing around and it becomes a public spectacle."

Sargent's wrangling of the creatures often plays a starring role in the show.

"You ever get on a large alligator, and they can get their feet underneath themselves, you feel like a toy on the their backs, because they get leverage and the next thing you know, you're in for a rodeo, and it's no fun."

Sargent harbors an affinity for Robins airborne inhabitants, no relation to the aircraft, the indigo bunting, the Kentucky warbler. They're beautiful. Often their winged counterparts create hazards for the man-made kind that share the skies.

"A large plane can suffer severe damage, engine failure, even bring an airplane down, if they hit enough small birds," says Sargent.

Sargent and a crew from the Robins Pest Management team use a propane cannon to frighten flocks from the airfield.

They cut the grass along the runway a particular height. Too short attracts grazers.

Too tall, "then it becomes a habitat for things like rabbits and rodents. We end up with hawks hunting over the airfield," explains Sargent.

Every day of his 20-plus years on the job hasn't been a wildlife adventure.

"I spend in my view too much time sitting in meetings."

It has allowed him to combine two passions: the Air Force which he joined at 18, and the outdoors, which he says was always his heart.

"I've been blessed to be able to do this as long as I have," he says.

His world walks the fine line between the wild and industrial, while many are unaware just how closely they coexist.

Sargent also spends a big chunk of time managing invasive plant species, such as alligator weed that can choke out lake ecosystems.

He also helps out the forestry service with controlled burns of the long leaf pine forest on Base.

Those used to be abundant in the Southeast covering 80 million acres. He says now there's about three million acres.

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