Article by Jim Ray, Pantex Wildlife Biologist/Scientist
2016 may forever be etched in my mind as "The Year of The Skunk." Certainly among my 28 years as a working wildlife biologist, I cannot remember seeing or hearing about the number of skunks as I have this year. Striped skunks seem to be everywhere; here at the Plant, in town, and even on the broader regional level according to newspaper articles. There have been big skunks, little skunks, single skunks, and mother skunks with tight “clusters” of babies in tow. One day, a co-worker and I watched several babies playing like kittens on a stack of pipes. Skunks appear to be everywhere.
For the first time in my career, I recently had to participate in the act of "herding skunks." Two of us actually had to attempt to “herd” a mother and six little ones across a road (with on-lookers) with the goal of driving them away from the work area of the facility. While I have learned to “herd” an adult skunk down a wall and into a trap situated along the same wall, a family of skunks traveling in the open does not herd easily. First off, closeness and sudden moves are ill-advised when it comes to herding skunks. Secondly, as you can imagine, each “toddler-skunk” has its own mind and, sure enough, one got separated from the group and now we had a new simultaneous objective that involved herding “Junior” back through traffic to join up with the family (now with additional on-lookers present). In the end, we were happy that “Junior” joined up with his family and we let them go their way. They went their way… and we went ours.
As the ‘season of love,’ the February and March timeframe, is normally our busiest time period for trapping striped skunks that have taken up residence under buildings. At that time they are on the move and they congregate for breeding purposes. However, another peak period of activity is August and September, when juveniles are dispersing away from their mothers to find territories of their own. It is also a time when skunks may need relief from the late summer heat and scarcity of water, while the lights of the Plant provide plenty of attraction for moths and other insects; many of which wind up on the ground as food for skunks and other critters that skunks consume. Evening and early morning are not unusual times to see skunks out in the daylight nor is the hours following a rain when flooding may force them out of resting places (culverts, burrows, and under structures) or when wet conditions are conducive to the availability of worms, grubs, and amphibians.
It should be no mystery as to why skunks appear to be flourishing in 2016. The above normal rainfall of 2015, followed by more modest, but evenly distributed rainfall in 2016 has led to and maintained prime cover and conditions for skunks and their prey (small mammals, eggs and young of ground-nesting birds, insects and other invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles). Good conditions equate to good survival and larger litters.
Skunks really are amazing animals. I do not particularly like having to deal with them, but it comes with the job. You have to admit that members of the weasel family have an interesting means of self-defense. The striped skunk is just one of the many amazing animals of what we refer to as Wild Pantex.
A mother striped skunk moving one of her babies to a new den. She was observed carrying around five little ones in quick succession.
Recently, Pantex and Y-12 were inspected by the Environmental Protection Agency. Y-12’s inspection also included a visit from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Both sites came away with stellar reviews after three day inspections in areas such as hazardous waste management, training and compliance documentation.
Pantex Waste Operations Engineering Technician John McMahan is one of many employees who works daily to ensure CNS meets environmental standards.
“This is a significant accomplishment that does not happen by accident, but instead through hard work, diligence, and a commitment to excellence,” said Teresa Robbins, NNSA Production Office deputy manager.
In addition to inspecting waste storage areas, the inspectors looked at numerous records. These records included hazardous waste manifests, annual hazardous waste activity reports, waste reduction reports, and hazardous waste training and lesson plan content. Despite the volume of records reviewed, inspectors noted only one minor issue.
Inspectors at each site had positive things to say about the various processes and procedures that they had observed. Inspectors noted that the Material Evaluation Process (waste characterization) employed at Pantex far exceeds what is required by regulation and is better than what he encountered at commercial waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities. At Y-12, the inspector even asked for a photo of an exceptionally good Y 12 practice to use as a benchmark for others.
“There are hundreds of folks doing the hard work every day and likely wonder if anyone will notice. Each one needs to know that excellence is a choice. And, the string of individual decisions they have made is having a positive impact on this site’s overall reputation,” said Bill Tindal, Y-12 site manager.
“Seeing that there were no violations or concerns identified during this on site inspection only proves that we have a great group of people here that really take pride in their jobs and processes,” said Todd Ailes, Pantex site manager.
There was plenty of smoke and fire, but the Pantex firefighters weren’t responding to a four-alarm fire. They were cooking for the annual Amarillo Chamber of Commerce’s Good Times Celebration Barbeque Cook-Off. The Pantex team went up against 99 cook teams, smoking ribs, brisket and other meats, to see who had the best barbeque in town.
Scott Johnson, Pantex battalion fire chief (left) and Saxon Webster, firefighter/EMT, prepare ribs during the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce’s Good Times Celebration Barbeque Cook-Off. For the past 17 years, Pantex firefighters come together in September to smoke the best meats and enjoy the competition. (Photo courtesy of Michael Schumacher, Amarillo Globe-News)
The Good Times Celebration is in its 21st year, and for the past 17 years, Pantex firefighters come together for a couple of days in September to smoke the best meats and enjoy the competition. This year’s event took place Sept. 7 and 8. For some, it’s the group of co-workers that brings them to the barbeque.
“This is my first time to cook for the Chamber event, but I wanted to because of the guys out here on the cook team,” said Jeremy Baker, Pantex firefighter/paramedic. “I cook with them at the Boots vs. Badges event, and we have a great time each year.”
Not only were the Pantex firefighters serving up their best fixings to the judges, they were serving more than 6,000 people who lined the streets of downtown Amarillo for the event.
“When you watch a person bite into a rib, slice of brisket or a piece chicken and you get the eye roll along with the ‘yum’ sound effect, you feel good knowing what you worked at for hours has paid off,” said Scott Johnson, Pantex battalion fire chief.
Even though the team did not place in this year’s event, they are tweaking their recipes and will be back again next year.
“Amarillo is a unique community that’s always happy to come together for good causes and fellowship – often over great food. I love that so many Pantexans get engaged in this event each year, and a photo of our firefighters even made the front page of the newspaper. I was also happy to get to taste their amazing barbeque creations, as well as serve as a rib judge. As always, we are proud to be a member of this community, and I am very proud of all the Pantexans who took the time to volunteer,” said Michelle Reichert, CNS deputy enterprise manager.
Article by Jim Ray, Pantex Wildlife Biologist/Scientist
Temperatures are moderating and although delayed frequently by muddy field conditions, we were finally able to finish the annual mapping of our colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs. Mapping is accomplished by driving the boundaries of the colonies—indicated by the area of clipped vegetation beyond the outer limit of visible burrows—in a vehicle equipped with GPS equipment. If areas within the colony appear unoccupied (grown-up vegetation and unmaintained burrows), we will “cut those areas out” as unoccupied. Mapping is an easier task during the wetter years because of a more noticeable difference in vegetation height between that occurring within the colony and vegetation occurring outside the boundary of the colony.
West Texas A&M University graduate Dustin Henderson attempts to locate a study animal in a prairie dog colony at the Pantex Plant.
Less widely-distributed on the site than most people would guestimate, the annual mapping we have conducted since 1997 has shown prairie dogs occupying an average of 357.5 acres. In addition, it is pretty obvious that our moderate cattle grazing rotation, along with moisture cycles, keeps prairie dog colony sizes largely in check. Annual variation in area occupied by prairie dogs over the past 12 years has ranged from -30 to 35 percent.
Besides wanting to monitor our prairie dog colonies as a resource, we also use the data for other purposes. For example, the value of colonies to other wildlife can be determined when compared to sighting and tracking data generated from other studies, like those we and collaborators have conducted on burrowing owls and other birds, amphibians and reptiles, small mammals (e.g., grasshopper mice), and bobcats.
Amount and timing of rainfall can have magical effects on the shortgrass prairie, including inside prairie dog colonies. 2015 was a “wet” year here in the Texas Panhandle, while this year was characterized by more modest rainfall distributed nicely through the year. In 2015, we noticed the diminutive plain’s milkweed (Asclepias pumila) and monarch caterpillars were unusually abundant in our prairie dog colonies, while this year antelope horn milkweed (A. asperula) seemed to be the benefactor of recent rainfall regimes. On our last day of mapping, I paused at a number of broadleaf milkweed plants (A. latifolia) and noticed many that hosted a monarch caterpillar.
I have never seen such a high number of burrowing owls in my 17 years of mapping compared to what I observed this year. The birds were everywhere and no doubt a product of good habitat and conditions for them and their insect, amphibian, reptilian, small mammal, and avian prey.
Whether it be an occasional stroll through a prairie dog colony or spending hours upon hours mapping their boundaries, I am always amazed at what all can be found in that habitat type. Remember, it’s always a best practice to use caution around prairie dog colonies.
Simply put, prairie dog colonies—having burrows, bare ground, different vegetation species and heights, and even unique animal communities—are important in terms of diversity to wildlife here in the shortgrass prairie.
Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS) once again has two employees participating in the Sandia National Laboratories Weapon Intern Program (WIP): Tyler McClary, Mission Engineering, and Brandon Pehrson, Y‑12 Operations. This highly sought-after internship teaches the technical details of weapon systems and provides site interactions that provide a comprehensive picture of the Nuclear Security Enterprise. Following that education, the interns work on a project with enterprise and personal value.
Both are looking forward to being a member of the WIP Class of 2017. “I hope to use the knowledge I gain to better serve the needs of Pantex,” said McClary, who has been a Pantexan for almost five years and is a lead design engineer in Tooling & Tester Design.
Pehrson, a production specialist and Y‑12 employee for 11 years, said, “I want to learn more about the weapons parts and material function so I can understand impacts of changes. I also want to become an expert in the weapons field.”
Colby Yeary and Eva Irwin of Program Integration, the CNS contacts for the program, realize there are many advantages for having Pantex and Y‑12 representatives participate.
Yeary said, “Our representatives provide a perspective from two key production agencies in the Nuclear Security Enterprise. Tyler and Brandon’s perspectives, and those of past participants, offer production agency considerations that can be overlooked in important nuclear weapon product realization activities.”
Tyler McClary (left) shares with Colby Yeary about participating in the WIP.
There are many benefits to the rigorous program. The first six months includes classroom work with site visits and research assignments. During the final five months, participants are embedded in various organizations across Sandia to work on specific projects.
“The interns are considered high potential and are able to develop and learn about the enterprise in an accelerated manner,” Yeary said. “It took me the better part of a decade to get the exposure and knowledge they will receive in less than a year.”
HaliAnne Crawford and Aaron Lee, the CNS representatives in the WIP Class of 2016B, offered advice to McClary and Pehrson. (During 2016, WIP had two classes.)
“No matter how daunting the next 11 months seem,” Lee said, “just jump in with both feet first as soon as possible. You have a limited time to learn as much as you can about a topic that is truly vast. Don’t waste a moment of the next 11 months because it will fly by.”
Crawford echoed Lee’s sentiment. “My advice is to get involved with the program, both inside and outside the classroom. Don’t be a passive participant. You will be learning from some of the greatest minds in our industry; ask questions and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
“You will find that your classmates are some of the most brilliant individuals you will ever have the pleasure of working with,” Crawford said. “Get to know them, learn from their experiences and leverage their knowledge and abilities whenever possible. This year will be one of the best of your life. Enjoy every single second of it.”
Lee agreed: “Listen to your classmates. They will have just as much to teach you as the instructors do. Members of my class represented almost every other site within the NSE as well as NNSA and the military. They had knowledge and perspectives on certain topics that were completely different from my own due to their own different experiences. Everyone brought unique experiences to the program and had a lot of knowledge to share with the class.”
After the internship, WIP participants return to their respective sites to continue their leadership journeys. Yeary said, “The WIP prepares today’s workforce as tomorrow’s leaders by rapidly providing a holistic, yet reasonably detailed view of the nuclear weapons business. The program helps candidates connect dots to see the ‘big picture’ — an important attribute of senior leadership.”