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Students get hands dirty with Pantex wildlife projects

CARSON COUNTY - Several area college students are spending a wild summer out at Pantex learning what they can, but it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, engineering or anything mechanical.

Pantex has partnerships with West Texas A&M, and right now several graduate students, and one undergrad biology major, are out at the plant helping conduct some very significant wildlife research.

When you think nuclear weapons facility, a thriving ecosystem isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But on the 18,000 acres of land owned by Pantex, every species of animal has been surveyed and studied.

"We actually have a very extensive wildlife program that has many levels from nuisance animal management to habitat management and even research," Pantex Wildlife Biologist Jim Ray said.

Right now the plant is conducting research on how wind energy can affect its surrounding ecosystems, particularly the prairie habitats  in the panhandle.

"We work with the prairie dog colonies and what uses them versus the surrounding prairie that doesn't have prairie dogs," Ray said. "We've had over a decade of research on rattle snakes that actually included radio tracking, over a decade of work on the Texas horned lizard, which is considered threatened by the state of Texas."

Now helping with those projects is Travis Turner, a West Texas A&M senior interning at Pantex for the summer.

"The different scientific experiments have been really neat," Turner said. "We've been around mapping, doing different survey plots."

Turner is just the second summer wildlife intern Pantex has taken on, but graduate students have been a big part of the wildlife work for years.

Lena Thurmond is doing her thesis on the bobcats surrounding the plant.

"We just noticed them actually coming onto the Pantex plant, but we didn't know anything about them," Thurmond said.

She has spent months trapping, taking DNA samples of, and placing tracking collars on 23 cats that roam the area.

All research that will help better the environment rather than destroy it, something the Department of Energy has made a top priority since the mid 1980's.

"We have new drivers to do this kind of work, and that's probably the biggest reason we have a wildlife program," Ray said.

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