By VINCE LITTLE, The BayonetJanuary 22, 2010
FORT BENNING, Ga. - In the scientific world, it goes by the name Picoides borealis. But this is not your average bird, post officials said.
Due to a shrinking habitat, the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only federal endangered species of woodpecker in the Southeast, said Michael Barron, a wildlife biologist with Fort Benning's Conservation Branch. It was put on the Endangered Species list in 1973.
Rick Clapp, the garrison's Base Realignment and Closure program manager, said the Army has spent about $1 million each year since the late 1980s to manage and preserve the population at Fort Benning. About $1.3 million was set aside for fiscal year 2010 on protective measures for the red-cockaded woodpecker, with up to $2 million to be budgeted annually in the future.
Balancing the preservation measures with Fort Benning's massive expansion projects is a huge hurdle for installation officials, Clapp said.
In the next three years, the post is scheduled to complete $3.5 billion in construction, most of it aimed at supporting the Maneuver Center of Excellence, which will merge Fort Benning's Infantry Center with the Armor Center and School from Fort Knox, Ky. It's set to become fully operational by September 2011.
BRAC and MCOE officials had to complete an analysis of the impact those construction projects would have on Fort Benning's RCW population, and implement the mitigation measures indicated by that study, in time to meet the BRAC deadline, Clapp said.
"The Environmental Management Division team here, along with the rest of the Army's environmental team focused on the RCW, has done a tremendous, thorough job of completing the required analysis and mitigation implementation within the very tight timeline required under BRAC law," he said.
Training is restricted in areas where the woodpeckers live, officials said.
As a federal property under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fort Benning is legally bound to follow Endangered Species Act guidelines, Barron said. The law requires federal properties to manage their endangered species so that eventually those species might be removed from the list, promoting a full recovery.
He said red-cockaded woodpeckers make cavities in living pine trees, and it may take up to a year to make a single cavity large enough for a bird to use.
The woodpecker's numbers have dwindled to less than 3 percent of its historic high in terms of population, Barron said. Currently, there are 287 potential breeding groups on Fort Benning, which equates to about 700 birds.
"This number has been growing on Fort Benning due to extensive management efforts," he said. "Ten years ago, there were 191 potential breeding groups (and) approximately 500 birds. This has allowed Fort Benning to donate several birds each year to critically small populations that are essential for recovery of the species."
He said the post's habitat-improvement steps include prescribed burning, timber thinning, spraying of herbicide and hardwood removal. Wildlife officials also have enhanced habitat conditions by installing artificial cavities, along with cleaning and repairing existing cavities.
Fort Benning closely monitors the red-cockaded woodpecker population to document breeding success, Barron said.
What's a red-cockaded woodpecker'
DESCRIPTION: The bird is about the same size as a cardinal - roughly 8.7 inches long with a wingspan of 13.8 inches. Its feathers are black and white with white bars on the back. The underside is white to gray with black spots along the sides of the breast. Males and females look similar, but males have a spot of red feathers or "cockade" on each side of the head, which are rarely exposed, and females are slightly smaller. Both sexes also have a distinctive black cap and white cheek patch.
WHERE IT'S FOUND: the Southeast from Florida to Virginia, and west to southeast Oklahoma and eastern Texas.
HABITAT: Mature pine forests, and the pines must be at least 80 years old. Longleaf pines are most commonly preferred.
ENDANGERED: since 1973
Source: Earth's Endangered Creatures
A healthy Fort Benning RCW population is a vital part of overall recovery for the species. The installation's goal is set at 360 active breeding clusters. A look at some steps taken by Fort Benning to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker:
- Intensive management to improve habitat includes prescribed burning, timber thinning, spraying of herbicide and hardwood removal
- Wildlife officials are improving cavity conditions by installing artificial cavities, and cleaning and repairing existing cavities
- Population is closely monitored to document breeding success
- Currently, there are 953 artificial cavities placed in trees by Conservation Branch employees for use by RCWs
- Translocated 145 RCWs elsewhere to help restore the bird's population. The locations include: Daniel Boone National Forest, Ky.; Talladega National Forest, Ala.; De Soto National Forest, Miss.; Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range, Fla.; St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Fla.; Blackwater River State Forest, Fla.; and Conecuh National Forest, Ala.