Bomber, butterfly aerial displays in harmony

Just outside of Babcock, population 218 and near the Wood-Juneau county line, are two spectacular aerial displays that co-exist amicably despite their huge differences.

You can’t see one, and can’t miss the other. Both are reminders of the frailty of life, and the extent to which protection of it is a priority.

In Sandhill Wildlife Area and the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, the tiny and endangered Karner blue butterfly thrives. It is a weak flyer, with a wingspan of only an inch. A brilliant violet in color, it is found in only seven states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Karner recovery plan is 293 pages.

On the nearby Hardwood Bombing Range, a half-dozen high-performance F-16 Fighting Falcons may be soaring at once. The combat flyer can exceed Mach 2 in airspeed and has a wingspan of 32 feet, 8 inches. Known for its accuracy more than its looks, the aircraft has been used to destroy targets large and small.

There are hundreds of these fighters in operation worldwide.

The butterflies and the bombers fly less than five miles away from each other, and sometimes their paths intersect.

“This is the tension zone,” says Neal Paisley, Sandhill’s wildlife manager, referring not to what is airborne but to where “north meets south and the plant/wildlife inventory is immense.” This is the part of Wisconsin where the state’s northern forests and southern prairie grasses merge, which means a rich mix of vegetation and creatures because of the unusual environment.

The Karner blues thrive on wild lupine, and that plant grows well in this area. Some of the other less common species that live on or visit Sandhill’s 9,460 acres include Blanding’s turtles, trumpeter swans, prairie chickens and – especially in October – thousands of sandhill cranes.

Paisley calls his work “active habitat management … the area is much more diverse in habitat than it would be if the area was left to its own devices.”

He calls the Hardwood range a good neighbor that is conscientious about its work and sensitive to the impact it could have on protected and other species.

Although this is an inert range, meaning that it doesn’t drop live bombs, it is a noisy area in which visitors are advised to wear earplugs. One of 13 Air National Guard ranges in the nation, and affiliated with Camp Douglas, it covers about 7,000 acres. About 95 percent of the aircraft flown here are F-16s.

Hardwood is both a working military site and an attraction, says Lt. Col. Brendan Smith, who acknowledges “this is something you don’t get to see in many places.”

These are fully trained fighter pilots, many of whom also fly full-time for commercial airlines.

“Targets are set out – like a helicopter at the intersection of two runways – and these flying units will pick them out, tell us (by radio) how they’ll deliver their ordnance, then drop their bombs,” says Master Sgt. Greg Royce. “Then we score them.”

Speed and accuracy are measured, both in scenarios like this and other electronic simulations that involve the planes coming under attack.

“We also will move targets around and ask the pilots to find them,” Royce says. “Some are pretty challenging to find.”

A goal, Smith says, is to do dive bombs and other maneuvers so often that, if in a real war situation, “you’re so used to doing it that it comes naturally and is almost an internal reaction.”

The BDU-33, a 33-pound steel practice bomb, typically is dropped at Hardwood, but the payload can be as large as an MK-84, a practice bomb that weighs a ton. The way a plane handles will differ, depending upon its cargo.

Since the 9/11 terrorist incidents, “we’ve not seen as many aircraft or sorties (flight missions) here because some of these pilots are doing their jobs in other places,” says Royce, referring to wartime activity.

He holds environmental preservation as a priority, as does his boss.

“We have a great environmental record,” Smith says, noting the amount of wild lupine on the acreage and his staff’s attempts to protect the endangered Karner through prescribed range burns, firebreaks that protect the butterfly environment.

And during seasonal bird migrations, pilots will be told to raise their altitude of flight, so their planes move above the Canada geese, cranes and trumpeter swans.

“We share some of the same concerns as the wildlife refuges and have developed a reasonable method of co-existence,” Royce says.

The Hardwood Bombing Range often is open to visitors. It is off of Highway 80; turn east on Highway F, south of Babcock, and follow the signs.

Call (608) 427-1509 before visiting, to get information about the bombing schedule for the day. Night missions typically are not open to the public.

Bring earplugs and, if the weather is warm enough, a picnic lunch. There are grills, picnic tables and a shaded viewing area. Admission is free, and at least one staffer will be around to answer questions.

The Sandhill Wildlife Area, operated by the state Department of Natural Resources, has hiking trails, observation towers and a 14-mile auto trail (which is open from April into October). Wildlife and wilderness workshops, particularly for youths, are held year round.

Sandhill is one mile west of Babcock, on Highway X. To learn more, call (715) 884-2437 or go to www.dnr.state.wi.us.

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1939, covers 43,000 acres and – among other things – helps protect and restore the whooping crane population. (The area’s annual Whooping Crane Festival is Sept. 18 in Necedah.)

To learn more about the refuge, call (608) 565-2551 or go to http://midwest.fws.gov/Necedah.