• Operation Knock on Wood

    One of the largest species-restoration efforts takes flight.
    By Kirsten Weir
    Photographs by Carlton Ward Jr.
 

F

or 69 years, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg

has trained the U.S. Army’s elite and airborne troops. Soldiers drilled at the fort have served in wars from Korea to Afghanistan. But in 1990, the base’s top brass encountered an unexpected foe that threatened to shut down Fort Bragg’s highly tuned operations: the red-cockaded woodpecker.

After years of charting the bird’s rapid decline and trajectory toward extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a “jeopardy biological opinion” in 1990, requiring the base to take action to recover its woodpecker population or face sharp restrictions on military training activities.

The ruling caught base leaders off guard. “We’d just returned from the Gulf War, and we were handed a jeopardy opinion,” says Mike Lynch, Fort Bragg’s director of plans, training and mobilization.

Ironically, with perhaps as little as 3 percent of the bird’s primary habitat—longleaf pine forest—remaining in the Southeast, Fort Bragg had become something of a haven for the endangered species. “It’s not how you might imagine a big army base to be,” says Ryan Elting, The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina Sandhills program director. “Well over 120,000 acres at Fort Bragg are longleaf pine forest.”

Says Lynch, “At the end of the day, it wasn’t the army’s training or the soldiers or the bullets that were harming the woodpecker.” The culprit behind the bird’s decline on the base turned out to be ecological neglect: Years of suppressing forest fires on the base had begun to alter the longleaf pine habitat preferred by the red-cockaded woodpecker, and dense thickets of brush and scrub oak were filling in openings. The changes gave a boost to the bird’s competitors and predators, such as rat snakes. “We were not taking care of our forest,” says Lynch.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is no stranger to hardship. The bird was considered endangered before the U.S. Endangered Species Act passed into law in 1973. Even after receiving protected status, however, the woodpecker’s population continued to plummet for decades. From 1980 to 1990, the estimated number of woodpecker breeding groups (the birds live in clusters, usually with one breeding pair and several “helpers”) fell from 5,210 to 4,000.

The bird’s habitat of longleaf pine forests once blanketed more than 90 million acres from Texas to Virginia. Beginning in the late 1800s, those forests were systematically cut for timber and cleared for farm fields. Today fewer than 3.4 million acres of longleaf pine forests remain.

Frequent wildfires in the Southeast—usually sparked by lightning strikes—were the key to the past success of the longleaf pine and the red-cockaded woodpecker. The fires stimulate sprouting of the native groundcover that harbors the woodpeckers’ favorite insect prey. And the fires clear out brush, scrub oak and other hardwood tree species, allowing the pines, with their thick, fire-resistant bark, to thrive.

The red-cockaded woodpeckers adapted to life in this fire-driven habitat by carving out a niche, quite literally, in living pine trees, which helps protect their roosts from fire, says Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Susan Miller. (Other woodpecker species make roosting holes in dead trees.)
But the specialized adaptations that once helped the birds thrive have now made them more vulnerable to change: The woodpeckers prefer to roost in large pines—usually trees that are 80 years or older—infected with red heart rot, a fungus that softens the heartwood of the mature trees. When old-growth forests were cut down and young pine forests were planted for timber, the birds were left out in the cold.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service issued Fort Bragg its jeopardy opinion in 1990, the agency put restrictions on training activities on the base. But the agency also promised to look into lifting the restrictions if the bird’s population grew.

At first, says Mike Lynch, the Army wasn’t sure it could increase the bird’s population while still training soldiers to standard. Nevertheless, base officials—despite some strong reservations—eventually agreed to give it a shot.

To jump-start the woodpecker’s revival, the Army began collaborating with the Conservancy, the state wildlife commission, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other groups. The Sandhills Conservation Partnership, as the collaboration came to be called, brought the best in military discipline together with scientific know-how.

But things didn’t simply fall into place, says Lynch. In the beginning, “we just didn’t understand what each other was talking about.” Certain military maneuvers sounded scary on paper, for example, but when wildlife officials were able to observe the soldiers in the woods, they realized the activities were unlikely to harm wildlife.

“Once we came up with a commonality of language, things became a lot easier,” says Lynch. “We call it the story from conflict to collaboration.”

The group agreed that the first task was to rethink management of the base’s longleaf pine forests. With guidance from scientists and other members of the Sandhills Conservation Partnership, the Army began a program of carefully controlled burns to clear out the hardwoods that were choking the pine habitat and crowding out the woodpeckers.

In addition, the Army began working closely with the Conservancy to buy up habitat to protect against the sprawl that had begun to occur around the base. “By maintaining forested buffers outside, they’re ensuring their ability to maintain the installation in a way that’s good for wildlife and for training,” says Elting. So far, the partnership has protected more than 16,000 acres surrounding Fort Bragg—an area larger than Manhattan.

The partnership has been so successful that it has served as a model for dozens of others. In Georgia, for example, the Conservancy has teamed up with the Army again to restore longleaf pine habitat by forming the Chattahoochee Fall Line Conservation Partnership with officials at Fort Benning. Since it was formed in 2006, the group has protected 9,000 acres of potential woodpecker habitat around the base. “If all goes well, by this time next year we will have doubled that,” says Wade Harrison, the Conservancy’s director of forest conservation in Georgia.

Although habitat restoration has been the foundation for the bird’s recovery, it wasn’t the only thing needed to save the red-cockaded woodpecker. Despite successful work to protect longleaf pine forests in the 1970s and 1980s, in many parts of the Southeast the woodpecker’s numbers had continued to decline.
The highly territorial birds require large areas—about 200 acres for each nesting group. And it proved difficult to relocate them far from existing roosts because they require six or more years to carve out a new cavity—a serious time investment for a bird that lives just 10 to 12 years.

But a breakthrough came in the 1990s when scientists began experimenting with artificial nest cavities, says Will McDearman, with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife managers wielding chainsaws and ladders carved out holes high up in pine tree trunks and filled them in with artificial nest box inserts carefully crafted with interiors modeled on actual woodpecker roosts.

When Conservancy staff in Virginia kicked off a restoration program at the Piney Grove Preserve in 1999, careful surveys found only 12 birds on the property, says Brian van Eerden, director of the Conservancy’s Southern Rivers Program. “The odds were not in our favor,” he says.

Still, van Eerden and his team worked to rally additional support, building partnerships with state and local agencies and other organizations. The partners pooled resources to support the critical habitat-restoration steps—setting prescribed burns and creating artificial roosting cavities—before transplanting woodpeckers to the preserve.

When the new birds arrived, the artificial roosts were an instant hit. The birds settled in and, before long, began breeding.

The artificial roosts have allowed the birds to spread into areas where older trees and ready-made natural cavities are in short supply. Wildlife managers have now been installing the cavities in woodpecker habitat for about 20 years. “Since then, numbers have been increasing steadily,” says McDearman. “It was really a case of ‘build it and they will come.’”

Today, conservationists are cautiously celebrating signs of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s comeback.

At Fort Bragg, the Fish and Wildlife Service set a goal of increasing the bird’s population to 350 breeding groups by 2011. Thanks to the Sandhills Conservation Partnership, the woodpeckers reached that number more than five years ahead of schedule, allowing the training restrictions at Fort Bragg to be lifted in 2006. And the project hasn’t stopped there, says the Conservancy’s Elting; habitat restoration and land purchases have continued around the base.

Throughout the Southeast, the Fish and Wildlife Service aims to recover 13 primary core populations of at least 350 breeding groups each (about 900 birds), plus smaller secondary and support populations. So far, three of the primary populations—including the one at Fort Bragg—have reached the 350 mark.

And thanks to the new restoration techniques, things are beginning to turn around for the birds in smaller and more isolated populations as well.

At the Piney Grove Preserve in Virginia, 68 woodpeckers flit about where once there were just 12. And the preserve is now just one group shy of reaching its goal of 10 breeding groups.

“We’ve pulled the northern population back from the brink,” van Eerden says. “We view Piney Grove as a textbook example of where the Conservancy made the difference.”

The last few years also has seen an incredible turnaround at the Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve in central Florida. Researchers surveying the preserve in early 2007 turned up abandoned red-cockaded woodpecker cavities but zero birds.
In just a few years, habitat restoration and bird reintroduction efforts have established nine breeding groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers at the Conservancy’s preserve. In 2011 alone, 10 chicks fledged. “That may sound small,” says Conservancy field scientist Jennifer Milikowsky, “but it’s a huge victory.”

The preserve isn’t large enough to sustain a population of woodpeckers comparable to the number at Fort Bragg, says Milikowsky. Instead, the goal here is to foster a population that can help support the woodpecker’s survival across the southern portion of its range.

And she has already seen the first signs of success. Last year she spotted a red-cockaded woodpecker with unfamiliar markings. Turns out that the female bird, which had been banded, was part of a population from 40 miles to the south.

The bird settled in, found a mate and fledged two chicks this year. The Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve has become a stepping stone—helping the birds move between larger blocks of habitat—after only three years, “just like we hoped we would be,” Milikowsky says.

Thanks to the wealth of data scientists have collected about the woodpecker’s biology and behavior, restoration efforts are making a big difference. The estimated number of breeding groups has bounced back from 4,000 in 1990 to 6,200 today.

But ultimately, the effort isn’t just about saving a bird.

It’s about bringing back the longleaf pine habitat, which is a uniquely American landscape. “There are other rare and valuable species that are benefiting immediately from this work,” says the Conservancy’s Wade Harrison. At Fort Benning in Georgia, the changes are already helping several vulnerable forest species such as the gopher tortoise, gopher frog and Bachman’s sparrow.

Given all the support for restoration, the longleaf pine habitat is looking healthier every year. For that, says McDearman, we have the woodpeckers to thank. “If it wasn’t for the red-cockaded woodpecker, I’m not sure we would have seen the kinds of efforts to restore these longleaf pine ecosystems,” he says.

What began as an effort to save a bird by protecting forests has evolved into much more. “Woodpeckers are still important, but they’re not as much the driver anymore,” says McDearman. “And I think that’s a good thing.”

Photo Gallery

Woodpecker Leg Band 60x60 View photos of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and learn how scientists monitor populations.

"We’ve pulled the northern population back from the brink."

Brian van Eerden, director of the Conservancy’s Southern Rivers Program

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