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How The Military Helped Bring Back The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

The red-cockaded woodpecker has been listed as endangered for more than half a century.
The red-cockaded woodpecker has been listed as endangered for more than half a century.

The red-cockaded woodpecker has been listed as endangered for more than half a century, but that could soon change.

In the final months of the Trump administration, federal wildlife officials started a process to downgrade its status to "threatened."

Conservation groups say science doesn't support the move, and that it could undermine gains made in part with the help of unusual public-private partnerships that have taken decades of work and millions of dollars.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the bird's population is stable now, and that legally its status should be changed.

"It no longer meets that definition of endangered species, you know, that it is threatened by extinction basically," said Kristi Young, deputy manager for the service's Division of Conservation and Classification. "That's because the conditions have really improved."

Young helped develop the proposal to downlist the woodpecker.

One thing both sides agree on: For a bird that once threatened some of the nation's largest and most powerful military bases, the woodpecker's survival relies on an unusual amount of human help.

On a recent day at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps' main East Coast infantry base, a crew used leaf blowers, weed trimmers and machetes to clear a 10-foot circle around the base of a "cavity tree," a mature pine where the birds make their homes by gouging out a hole high up.

Watching was Craig Ten Brink, a wildlife biologist who manages the base's threatened and endangered species program.

He noted that after the industrious birds carve out a cavity, they continuously peck near the opening to make sap flow down in a long, yellowish apron. It wards off one threat, climbing snakes, but creates another when the forest is periodically cleared with low-intensity controlled burns.

"The sap that the woodpeckers cause to drip down the tree is highly flammable, so if the grass and other vegetation is built up around the tree, that's like to catch fire," he said.

A few hundred feet from the clearing crew, at the base of cavity tree 227, according to a metal tag affixed to its bark, biologist Aliza Sager was assembling a long pole, with a video camera at the end to peer into the hole woodpeckers had carved 40-feet up the tree. Biologists routinely check to see whether cavities are in use, and document the findings both to help manage the birds' population and gather research data.

"It's a lot of ground work, It's a lot of tromping around looking at trees," she said. "You start to see them when you shut your eyes at night."

Biologist Aliza Sager assembles a long pole, with a video camera at the end, to peer into the hole the woodpeckers had created.
Jay Price / WUNC
Biologist Aliza Sager assembles a long pole, with a video camera at the end, to peer into the hole the woodpeckers had created.

There are more than a thousand cavity trees on the base. It can take years for the birds to carve the holes, so each tree is a valuable asset for the birds that must be numbered, documented and managed. And the entire forest must be maintained, too, with the burns that mimic natural forest fires caused by lightning before modern fire suppression began. Then, of course, there are the birds themselves. The biologists try to identify and track every one of the hundreds on the base by fitting them with color-coded bands when they're still chicks.

Managing the trees, the birds and the forests themselves is a lot of work at Lejeune. And similar efforts are required on several major military bases across the Southeast, which are home to four of the six most robust pockets of the woodpeckers.

But the birds and bases have complicated history.

There were once millions of the woodpeckers, from New Jersey, down across the Southeast. Modern fire suppression and logging shrank that to a few thousand, and they were declared endangered in 1970. Then, in the early 1990s, the bird's problems became the military's.

"We got a jeopardy opinion from the Fish and Wildlife Service which basically said that all of our military training had to come to a halt because it was threatening the continued existence of the red cockaded woodpecker," Mike Lynch said.

Back then, he was on the leadership team at Fort Bragg, the nation's largest Army base by population, where he oversaw training areas.

Lynch remembers a bird-triggered crisis. Some units were even briefly forced to train out of state. And the woodpeckers were on other major bases, from Lejeune and Bragg to Fort Benning in Georgia and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

There's a reason: The nation's military bases are kind of oases from development and are home to hundreds of endangered and threatened species. In fact, they have the the highest density of threatened and endangered plants and animals of any federal lands, even more than national parks.

With the woodpecker crisis, at first it seemed like the biologists, conservationists and military officials were speaking different languages, said Lynch.

"It was a very volatile period. I mean, there were times when we you know, we had the Fish and Wildlife and the other environmental groups, and the Army and a herd of lawyers on both sides and we couldn't sit in a room for more than 20 minutes without getting into a heated debate," he said.

But then, Lynch says, they realized something.

"We all had the same interests. We all wanted open space, we wanted good forests, we wanted places you know, that were gonna be here in 100 years," he said. "Me for my soldiers, them for their constituents who want to recreate hunt, fish, and enjoy the the outdoors and green space."

That's when the military began working with conservation groups, state and local governments and private landowners to preserve forest around the bases it to give the birds more habitat to expand their populations.

The buffers also protect the bases from encroaching development that could hamper training.

These unusual partnerships helped the woodpecker become a conservation success story. The birds live in family sized clusters that work together to raise the young of one breeding pair. There are an estimated 7,800 such clusters, up from fewer than 1,500.

But environmentalists say it's too early to declare victory for the woodpecker.

For one thing, the clusters are located in 124 distinct populations, and 108 of those populations have fewer than 100 clusters and are considered to have low or very low resiliency. Many are in coastal regions that are vulnerable to hurricanes that are becoming more common and powerful because of climate change, hurricanes that have already in some cases destroyed substantial numbers of cavity trees. In 1996, hurricanes destroyed more than half the cavity trees in one North Carolina game lands forest.

And protecting the woodpeckers has long been seen as the key to protecting the health of few remaining tracts of the distinctive long leaf pine forests and the various other species that rely on that ecosystem.

Environmentalists see the proposed change in the bird's status as a part of a larger pattern of Trump administration attempts to erode environmental protectionts. The downgrading is still under consideration even with a new administration.

Ramona McGee is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents more than 20 environmental groups opposed to the downlisting.

"The best available science shows that this species is still endangered, and the Fish and Wildlife Service should not be changing the status of the species," she said.

McGee says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is ignoring its own recovery plan for the woodpecker, which has criteria for when its status should be changed.

"And those criteria get pretty complicated pretty quickly, but that's because they were so carefully thought out and scientifically vetted," she said. "They fundamentally come down to a lot of different population targets, which have not been met for either the downlisting or the delisting criteria, which all goes to show that this proposal is not warranted or justified by the service's own recovery planning documents."

Her organization obtained documents showing that initially the wildlife service was considering delisting the woodpecker entirely, not even classifying it as threatened.

"Fundamentally, the Service appears to have set a goal to reclassify the red-cockaded woodpecker for years now and has been working toward that goal instead of honestly assessing the best available science to determine whether such a change is warranted," the law center wrote in official comments on the submitted during the public comment period on the downlisting.

Some environmental groups and North Carolina's state wildlife office told the wildlife service they worry that ignoring the recovery plan for the woodpecker could call into question the scientific validity of recovery plans for other species.

Young, the wildlife service official, said the plan is an important guide, but not legally binding. She said the woodpecker populations have strengthened enough that legally it should be downlisted.

Species lose protections when they're downlisted from endangered. But an add-on rule can be tailored to their situation that can protect them in ways that can actually enhance their recovery. She said such a rule would be part of the woodpecker's downlisting.

Lynch, the former Fort Bragg official, says the partnership there to help boost the woodpeckers became a model for similar conservation efforts at bases across the country, efforts that aid a host of species. The Pentagon has spent more than $1 billion on those and attracted hundreds of millions more from conservation groups.

Wildlife service officials say that if the woodpecker begins to decline again, for whatever reason it could be re-listed as endangered.

But Lynch fears that removing the woodpecker's endangered status would drain the energy from the unusual partnerships that were painstakingly built to bolster it.

"The intrinsic value you get out of them, not only from just this, but by the fact that you're meeting, you've established a relationship, you have a rapport, it opens up lines of communications and opportunities in so many other fields," he said. "They've paid off tenfold for us not just in growing woodpeckers, but in things like being able to work regulations around the installation to prevent conflicts and prevent incompatible uses."

And he does fear the loss of the hard lessons the partners learned before they figured out how to work together.

"We as a society have gotten to where we are today with the species, through hard work and partnerships," he said. "And focus is very, very important, because if we don't, we'll just relive history again, in 10 years, it doesn't take doesn't take long for us to choke itself out, or a species to be on the brink of is not properly managed. And that all that impacts all of us."

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC