OMAHA, Nebraska — Some 360 civilian natural resources professionals converged here March 8-13 for the National Military Fish and Wildlife Association workshop. During the workshop, nine professionals were recognized with a variety of awards. Among the awardees was retired Fort Hood Wildlife Biologist Dennis Herbert, who was selected for the Historical Conservation Achievement Award, also known as the NMFWA Hall of Fame Award.
Herbert began his career in 1972, was promoted to Fort Hood’s Natural and Cultural Resources branch chief in 1986, and retired in 2005.
When asked if he was surprised his career initiatives are still impacting NMFWA today, and ultimately led to NMFWA recognizing him.
“(I’m) surprised, but grateful that the NMFWA organization is recognizing civilian employees at the installation level, a testament to DoD’s grass roots personnel that support the military on a daily basis,” he said of the honor.
Herbert is known for crediting others and those who worked under him for his agency’s success. “These highly trained Natural Resources scientists make it possible for the military to be trained and deployment ready by maintaining the natural resources that training depends on,” Herbert added.
Fort Hood and its vast natural landscape is maintained, not only for today’s generation of military training, but future generations as well. Secondarily, for outdoor recreational co-use. It takes the wisdom of someone who thoroughly knows the local area’s resources and combines decades of experience to apply best management practices on one of the largest Army installations in the U.S.
“Maintaining the natural resources is the only viable option for providing realistic training and outdoor recreation for the long term,” Herbert added. “They’re not making any more land and what we have is likely all we’ll ever get from Congress and the public. You can’t trash public land and expect to then move over and buy another piece of God’s green earth.”
Last of their kind
Herbert is among the last wildlife professionals to have been assigned law enforcement double-duty. Thus, Herbert managed wildlife and natural resources with tools such as fire, cows, the ax and the plow, but he was also assigned a sidearm and worked closely with the Provost Marshal Office to ensure enforcement of natural resources laws.
As an experienced wildlife biologist, with enforcement double-duty, Herbert recognized the need for more law enforcement and specialized training in both areas of management. In response, and due to his day-to-day experience, he was able to share many small details with installation decision-makers on both sides to help address challenges that lay ahead, helping them plan and develop the first Fort Hood Civilian Game Warden program.
Herbert expressed how this was a top achievement on the installation and added, “… initiation and development of a civilian game law enforcement branch in the early ‘70s to (implement) the laws and regulations that were designed to protect the soil, water and wildlife we had then and into the future. Fort Hood’s program was one of the earliest in all of DoD.”
Before Herbert arrived, military training, recreational off-roading and overgrazing combined to cause soil erosion and, eventually, water quality issues.
In response to problems, Herbert worked to initiate the first Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan. This plan eventually moved Fort Hood forward in incorporating various problem-solving tools to reverse herbaceous vegetation decline, improve water quality and prevent soil erosion and sedimentation caused by a combination of maneuver training, overgrazing and public use.
Current NCRMB Chief Tim Buchanan was hired by Herbert in 1991 and had been involved with many of the projects initiated by Herbert. Buchanan had very high praises for his former boss.
“Dennis is an enormous credit to our profession of natural resources management and I am profoundly grateful that he took a chance and hired me to work at Fort Hood,” Buchanan said. “His knowledge, leadership and guidance throughout his career endures to present day, and will continue.”
Increasing science staff
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is a powerful conservation law that emerged within Herbert’s career. This law added compliance requirements on federal lands including Fort Hood. In 1983, Herbert hired a non-game wildlife biologist who, at the time, was a one person program responsible for the only endangered species, the Bald Eagle, which is now recovered. Eagles do not nest, except in winter. This program changed in 1987 and 1990 when the Black-capped Vireo and the Golden-cheeked Warbler were listed as endangered, respectively, after discovery on Fort Hood. Both species nest here, and thus there was a need for more scientific knowledge about the small songbirds and any impacts Army training may be having.
Herbert successfully lobbied for funds from U.S. Army Forces Command to enable staff to establish effective installation programs to further the recovery of both birds, while ensuring military training was never compromised. Herbert’s success in gaining the FORSCOM support eventually resulted in doubling the staff through cooperative agreements with universities and The Nature Conservancy. Increases in staff and diversification of expertise subsequently allowed for better management of all forms of biodiversity on the installation, and better integration of military training and land management.
Herbert’s non-game wildlife expert was John Cornelius. Cornelius eventually succeeded Herbert as branch chief, before retiring too, in 2009, and also has high praises for Herbert, especially when endangered species challenges were at their highest for Fort Hood in 1990.
“Dennis provided me support and advice when needed, but his management style was mostly one of empowerment,” Cornelius said. “He basically pointed me in the right direction and then got out of my way and let me do the job. With his leadership, the Endangered Species Program, and natural resources management as a whole, achieved remarkable success.”
During Herbert’s last year at Fort Hood, endangered species training restrictions were reduced from 24% to 4% of the entire land area. The remaining 4% was removed 10 years later.
In 2017, with Herbert present at the formal ceremony held in III Corps and Fort Hood Headquarters, Fort Hood received the prestigious United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Military Conservation Partner of the Year for their many wildlife management successes. The following year, the endangered Black-capped Vireo was fully de-listed. Today, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is still listed as endangered, but the habitat area is several times more than required for full local species recovery goals on Fort Hood.
As a testament to his storied career, diverse conservation accomplishments and other contributions to Fort Hood Natural and Cultural Resources, Herbert remains confident with the program now and in the future.
“Upon retirement, I knew that the program I left was in very good hands with excellent and capable personnel,” Herbert said. Several of Herbert’s direct hires still serve the NCRMB in leadership roles today.
Herbert’s advice to the current and any future NCRMB Chief: “Surround yourself with good people that you can trust and that have experience. If they have a super education, that’s a bonus. And never forget the golden rule.”