CFB SHILO — There a few places as ideal as military bases to study the natural world.
That is, as long as you have clearance from range patrol, which ensures researchers are safely away from training exercises and sites potentially with unexploded ordnance.
That’s according to Canadian Forces Base Shilo biologist Sherry Punak-Murphy, who has been studying the base’s 40,000 hectares for more than 30 years.
"There’s no better job than here, working in the training area as a biologist," she said. "We’ve got a mix of native grass prairie — one of the largest tracts in Manitoba because it hasn’t been tilled under."
Sand dunes, a lake, marsh, aspen parkland and a pine plantation fill out the eclectic landscape.
"Every time I go out, I learn something new — even now," she said. "I’ll identify a new plant or see something I haven’t seen before. It’s like going on a hike every day."
Her role at the military base might be surprising to some given the Department of National Defence’s mandate, which according to their website, is "implementing government decisions regarding the defence of Canadian interests at home and abroad."
Although there’s no mention of environmentalism, Punak-Murphy is there to ensure Canadian Armed Forces members are being mindful of their impacts on the natural world.
"We are bound by the Species at Risk Act, so the majority of my job has to do with species at risk and making sure the military’s impact on the environment does not adversely affect habitat for species at risk," she said.
That clarified, she added the military impact she has seen during her time at Canadian Forces Base Shilo appears to be a net gain to the environment.
"My job is to make sure our training doesn’t negatively impact the habitat, and what we do here at Shilo is actually good for the environment."
A certain degree of disturbance such as what military activities allow for, she said, is key, and mimics what would happen if humans weren’t present.
"You need fire, you need some impaction of the soil, you need disturbance — knocking down trees, leaving trees that are dead for red-headed woodpeckers," she said.
Military vehicles mimic bison parading through the land, which would have traditionally torn up the landscape, and unexploded ordnance in the ground left from decades past prevent the land from ever being tilled — an act of disturbance greater than what would regularly be seen in the natural progression of things.
"They did a study on species at risk … in Europe, and they noticed they’re in these little pockets throughout Europe, and they ended up finding these pockets were military bases," Punak-Murphy said.
"We become a sanctuary to certain species because the ground isn’t plowed, we aren’t building roads, we aren’t building infrastructure or cities, we’re just leaving it."
Canadian Forces Base Shilo’s 40,000 hectares has proven a "haven" for a herd of elk and deer who feast on the natural prairie grasslands and shrubs, defecating natural fertilizer along the way.
Compared to nearby Spruce Woods Provincial Park, where the land doesn’t experience the same degree of disturbance, she said the base’s training grounds boast greater tracts of native mixed-grass prairie.
Punak-Murphy is currently looking into the possibility of hiring summer students — an endeavour close to her heart, as she started out as a summer student in 1990, after which she became a natural resource technician before landing the base biologist role in 2008.
She’s also in the midst of the annual Manitoba Nocturnal Owl Survey, which has been written about elsewhere in today’s edition of Westman This Week.
» Twitter: @TylerClarkeMB