A variety of wildlife calls Pantex home

  • Posted: Friday, March 1, 2024, 8:28 am

A great horned owl perches on a building.
A great horned owl perches on a building.

It was the start to an exciting day for Kevin B., who works at Pantex. He got the call early in the day about a burrowing owl stuck in razor wire at the plant. After getting assistance from the yard group, they freed the small owl and it was taken to Wild West Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Amarillo with concerns about its injured leg. Since it opened in 2016, the rehabilitation center has helped with many animals found on plant and has provided all these services for free. When Kevin spoke with the non-profit recently, it was suggested that the tiny owl might find a career as an educational animal there.

As soon as Kevin got back to the plant, he received a call about a feral cat that had been caught in a trap on-site. When he got to the cat’s location, he realized it was about 50 feet from where he rescued the owl that morning. He was able to take the cat to a shelter in Amarillo that has a “barn cat program,” in which feral cats are saved from euthanasia by being adopted by farmers who rely on them for rodent control.

According to Kevin, this kind of day is not unusual. His department has set high standards when it comes to how they handle wildlife and their work to preserve the land that Pantex inhabits. On top of removing animals and relocating them from places they should not be, he and his group also do quite a bit to maintain the natural terrain of the land. From playa lake preservation to studies tracking purple martin birds, Kevin’s group at Pantex does all they can to be good stewards of the land in the Texas Panhandle. In addition to the work their department does with the environment, they also secure safety for the site by managing hazardous situations with wildlife and routinely monitoring levels of animal waste.

Due to the heavy rain in May and June, there has been an influx of young wildlife roaming around the approximately 16,000 acres at Pantex. On the master list of wildlife that Kevin’s department reports every year, there were 103 species of birds reported at Pantex in 2023. The high levels of water in the playas last summer have brought in waterfowl that have not been seen at Pantex in decades. Examples of some of the larger species that have recently been spotted are the ferruginous hawk, the Virginia rail, and bald eagles.

Fawns have routinely been seen with their mothers around the plant, as well as plenty of young skunks, prairie dogs, snakes, and the protected Texas horned lizards. During “swift fox surveys” at night (developed a couple of decades ago to see if swift foxes were showing up at night on the plant), coyotes, rabbits, and other wildlife are seen regularly.

The growing population of young burrowing owls and Texas horned lizards is quite encouraging to Kevin, as they have seen so few of them in the years preceding 2023. The species have been in a decline in recent years, causing Texas biologists to have growing concern for the future of the species. Pantex Lake is a welcoming home for both species, which has resulted in a strict 10 mph speed limit for those driving in the area.

While the Environmental Compliance group has done copious amounts of work to preserve the habitat and protect the wildlife at the Pantex Plant, Kevin knows there is more to be done. To continue the mission and make the right decisions for all inhabitants of Pantex, they are working on a continued project to set up shrubs to prevent prairie dogs from getting into places that may be harmful for them. Another study that they are looking to do with local universities is to figure out how to keep invasive grass species that are harmful to Texas horned lizards from killing native grasses that protect the lizards. Pantex has long worked with Texas Tech and West Texas A&M University professors and students on preservation projects to make Pantex a great place for Texas wildlife.

Kevin believes that the heavy rain last spring is a big contributor to the large number of young animals roaming around, as well as animals seeking shelter closer to buildings. Although this is positive in many ways, it can also lead to wildlife being in places it should not be.