How the U.S. Military Helped Bring an Endangered Woodpecker Back from the Brink

WABE published a fascinating look at the relationship between Southern military bases and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

It has taken decades of work and millions of dollars, but now, after more than half a century on the endangered list, federal wildlife officials have begun the process of downgrading the status of the red-cockaded woodpecker to "threatened."

This week, WABE published a fascinating look at the relationship between the rare bird and the U.S. government and the essential role that military bases have played in their comeback.

Rare Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Elizabeth W. Kearley/Getty Images

Before commercial logging, there were millions of red-cockaded woodpeckers in the southeastern United States. In 1970, with their numbers dipping into the thousands, the birds were declared endangered. But it wasn't until the early 1990s that the military became involved in saving them.

"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, who was on the leadership team at Fort Bragg at the time, recalled to WABE.

The woodpecker crisis impacted other major bases too, including nearby Camp Lejeune as well as Fort Benning in Georgia and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Lynch told WABE that some units were even briefly forced to train out of state.

Now, to understand how the small bird threatened the might of the strongest military in the world, we must begin with its habitat.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are what's known as a habitat specialist species, meaning they require very unique resources to survive. In this case, the woodpecker and longleaf pine trees are inextricably entwined.

According to All About Birds, red-cockaded woodpeckers dig cavities in pines softened by heartwood rot. They live in family clusters that work together to dig cavities and collectively raise the young of one breeding pair. When commercial lodging decimated the Southeast's vast forests of longleaf pine trees, the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers plummeted.

Now, back to the military. As WABE explains, because they're immune to development, America's military bases have become sanctuaries for endangered and threatened species. In fact, military bases reportedly have a higher density of threatened and endangered plants and animals than national parks. Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, and Eglin Air Force Base are home to four of America's six most robust pockets of the woodpeckers.

The military had no choice but to give the federally endangered bird the habitat required to expand its numbers. And so, an unusual partnership with conservation groups, local governments, and private landowners was born.

Today, WABE reports that there are an estimated 7,800 family clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers—up from fewer than 1,500.

With the bird's population stable, legally, its status should be changed to threatened.

It's an undisputed success, but Lynch told WABE he fears that removing the woodpecker's endangered status will make us lax.

"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 long for us to choke it out, or a species to be on the brink of is not properly managed. And that all that impacts all of us."

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