Master Naturalists Visit the Shenandoah Valley’s SCBI

ARMN member Mary Martha Churchman reports on a rare and valuable opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

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The author (front, center) and fellow ARMN members on the SCBI tour (photo courtesy of Caroline Haynes)

by Mary Martha Churchman

On June 7, 17 Arlington Regional Master Naturalists traveled to Front Royal, where they were joined by 7 members of the Banshee Reeks Master Naturalists chapter to tour the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) [https://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/]. The 3,200-acre facility is not open to the general public, but docent-led tours are provided by appointment to selected groups.

Following a brief orientation film in the auditorium, the naturalists filled two vans to tour the grounds. Knowledgeable docents drove and narrated as we viewed the pastures and pens where various species are studied and bred for reintroduction to natural areas and zoos, both domestically and internationally. These include Black-footed Ferrets, Scimitar- horned Oryx, Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes, Dama Gazelle, Tufted Deer, Eld’s Deer, Przewalski Horses, and—of course—the charismatic Cheetahs.

While Congressional appropriations fund the permanent staff and facilities, the institute’s research projects are subsidized by grants, some international. The Scimitar-horned Oryx, for example, are funded by the United Arab Emirates and will be released into the Sahel (sub-Saharan Africa) as game. Eld’s Deer will be reintroduced to Southeast Asia as prey to support the tiger population. The ancestors of the ferrets have successfully colonized in Colorado.

Many of the rolling-foothill meadows are planted in grasses that are mown to feed not only the animals at SCBI but all the hoofed stock at the National Zoo. In turn, manure from the zoo is brought back to Front Royal, composted, and reapplied to fertilize the fields.

In addition to the featured animals, we witnessed other projects of special interest to master naturalists. The docents spoke passionately about the fight against invasive plants at the sprawling facility. The staff work with volunteers to control Autumn Olive, Multi-flora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet, among others. In addition, research is underway to exclude deer from selected plots and observe the changes. Virginia Working Landscapes [http://www.vaworkinglandscapes.org/] is trying to rehabilitate unused fields.

Local volunteers monitor bluebird houses, which produced 175 fledglings in one recent year. Several experimental garden plots highlight strategies for reintroducing native plants. SCBI hosts one of fifty sites of the Natural Environmental Observatory Network (NEON) [http://www.neonscience.org/about], which continuously observes 14 data points and is the site of an annual overflight to monitor environmental conditions. Apart from the ongoing research, the SCBI also has a cooperative academic program with George Mason University to train a new generation of conservation biologists.

At the end of the tour we were able to get out of the vans to stretch at the grassy racetrack, a legacy of the years from 1911 to 1948 when the property was a U.S. Army Cavalry Remount Station that was used for veterinary science. The use persisted through ownership by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1975, the National Zoo has conducted conservation biology at the site, first through its Conservation and Research Center and from 2010 as the SCBI.

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