Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Longstanding efforts to foster survival of the red-cockaded woodpecker have succeeded to the point that federal officials propose changing its status from "endangered" to "threatened," they announced in a Sept. 25 ceremony here.
The proposed change in status will be subject to public comment before a final decision is made.
The red-cockaded woodpecker makes its home in pine forests, including those at Fort Benning, where the Army keeps up an ongoing regimen of conservation measures aimed at helping the woodpecker's population grow and thrive.
It's been on the endangered species list since 1970, after generations of industrial and other activity reduced its habitat, and thus, its population.
But concerted efforts by a range of agencies and organizations – among them actions by U.S. military installations including Fort Benning – have helped increase the bird's population, the officials said during the open-air ceremony at the Campbell King Horse Bowl here.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proud to announce today that the red-cockaded woodpecker has flourished to the point where today we can propose to downlist them from endangered to threatened, under the Endangered Species Act, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith.
Skipwith and other speakers noted the effort to aid the red-cockaded woodpecker has entailed cooperation across a broad spectrum of agencies and organizations.
"The woodpecker's full recovery will still require our best conservation efforts but in that endeavor I know our strong partnerships, our committed stakeholders and the foundation of science will see us through," she said.
"We are looking forward," she said, "to that next shared milestone, the day when the red-cockaded woodpecker has flourished to the point where we can remove them entirely from the list of endangered species, due to recovery, as we have done so with the bald eagle, the American alligator, and so many more."
At Fort Benning, the bird's breeding population has grown thanks to efforts that began decades ago, James Parker, chief of the Natural Resources Management Branch of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning's Directorate of Public Works, said earlier this week.
Those efforts include intentionally set fires known as prescribed burning, as well as planned removal of unhealthy trees, and installation of artificial nests known as cavities, that serve as ready-for-occupancy homes for the woodpeckers.
The fires maintain and improve the woodpecker's habitat, in part by helping generate insects the birds feed on, Parker said.
"Those leaves, pine needles, limbs, pine cones, the fire will help turn those nutrients back into the soil" he said. "So by prescribed burning you're recycling those nutrients back into the soil quicker, which thrives with the ground cover, and it's basically like fertilizer for your ground cover."
Installing the artificial cavities in the appropriate types of trees can spare the woodpeckers the long-term labor of pecking out a cavity for themselves, a process that can take a year or more, said Parker.
"It can take a red-cockaded woodpecker one to two years to build a natural cavity," said Parker. "It's a lot of work. That little bird pecking a cavity into that tree," he said. "So what we've done and several other installations have done is, you can cut out a section of that mature tree and then install a pre-made cavity and those birds will take to it," Parker said.
"It's basically an instant home and that bird can reproduce there and it's been proven to dramatically increase your populations quickly," he said.
Conservation officials here sometimes affectionately call the artificial cavities "subsidized government housing" for the woodpecker, said Parker.
In welcoming remarks during the Friday morning ceremony, Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commanding general of Fort Benning's U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, said the woodpecker's increased population here and on other military installations was the result of careful, deliberate effort.
"Since the 1980s, Fort Benning has been one of the hubs for the red-cockaded woodpecker conservation efforts nationwide" Donahoe said, an effort that "doesn't come cheap," and costs about $1 million a year.
"But we are excited to be part of that success today," he said.
"So for most folks it may be an unexpected connection of conservation and military posts, but Fort Benning's not the only base and the red-cockaded woodpecker's not the only species of animal protected by our military reservations.
"We manage the land on Fort Benning as if it was our own," he said. "We truly know it is America's. And so when a small group of Soldiers may occasionally visit the training areas here it is the animal life and plant life that really own it.
"So if we can use this opportunity to extend safeguards of our ecosystems and protect otherwise endangered species while we train amongst it," said Donahoe, "that's a win-win."
Donahoe was followed at the lectern by Alex A. Beehler, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, who said Donahoe's remarks were "so right on point" in highlighting "how and why Army installations and military installations across our land have been such effective centers of conservation to help restore and protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats.
"When endangered species populations increase, the military capabilities of mission-critical natural landscape, are enhanced," said Beehler.
He said conservation efforts to aid the red-cockaded woodpecker at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Fort Stewart, Georgia were among two examples of that.
"This has not been an easy path," said Beehler. "It has taken intensive management and close partnerships among the Army, the other military departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a wealth of other partners to move the species toward recovery.
"The decades of hard work by the Army's professional wildlife biologists and foresters working in collaboration with our many partners are the heroes in this success," Beehler said.
The audience also heard remarks from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary David L. Bernhardt. Both praised the cooperation of those agencies and others that have worked to help the red-cockaded woodpecker. The Fish and Wildlife Service is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service has also been a key player in the efforts to support the woodpecker.
The proposed change will be placed in the Federal Register for public comment," said Parker.
The Fish and Wildlife Service "will receive comments on their proposal," he said, "and then they have to review all those comments before they issue their final decision."
The red-cockaded woodpecker is found in 11 states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the Service's website.