MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- The Southern Appalachian Region is currently home to several endangered species of birds including the American Bald Eagle, Bachman’s Warbler, the American Peregrine Falcon, the Sandhill Crane, and maybe the most frequently encountered aboard Camp Lejeune, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
These finicky birds once thrived in the pine forests stretching as far west as Texas, as far north as New Jersey and as far south as Florida, but changes in land use and the expansion of commercialized civilization have deprived them of critical habitats.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the species as endangered in 1970, following the cutting down of forests, birth of cities and clear-cutting for crop farming. They were expected to become extinct, until the service launched a program in the 1990s to save them.
The seven-inch tall, black and white woodpeckers prefer to peck nesting cavities only in pine trees at least 80-years-old and infected with a fungal disease that softens the trunk’s interior. It can take the birds months, even years, to peck out a suitable nesting cavity.
The Environmental Conservation Branch here strives to balance the military mission with endangered species conservation while protecting and enhancing the woodpecker’s habitat.
Prescribed burning in specified areas is one method used to increase the woodpecker’s population.
“Prescribed burning and forest management including thinning timber is a big part of helping woodpeckers to procreate,” said Craig Ten Brink, a wildlife biologist and the Endangered Species Program manager with the Camp Lejeune Environmental Conservation Branch. “We thin the trees out because the birds prefer wide open areas without mid-range trees in their surroundings. It helps restore the long leaf pines as well, because that’s their nesting tree of choice.”
While base biologists and foresters work to aid in the birds’ survival, the birds have instinctual, defensive measures of their own.
“The woodpeckers will actually peck holes in their nest tree’s bark to release sap and allow it to glaze the outside of the tree,” said Ten Brink. “This prevents snakes, their most natural predator, from climbing up the trees and eating them and their young.”
Camp Lejeune, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has developed and implemented the Mission-Compatible, Long-Range Red-cockaded Woodpecker Management Plan for their protection and recovery. Starting with 49 active clusters in1999, Camp Lejeune's recovery goal is to support 173 active clusters, containing at least one bird, according to Ten Brink.
“Once we meet and maintain that goal, we will remove all training restrictions set in place right now,” said Ten Brink. “We’re estimating the recovery goal will take about 20 years based on a five-percent increase every year.”
The ultimate goal is the establishment of a healthy woodpecker population and supporting habitat free of all training restrictions, according to Gary Haught, a wildlife biologist with the branch. This is the most positive outcome for both the birds and those training on base.
The Environmental Conservation Branch is also looking into ways to reduce training restrictions between now and the time they meet their recovery goal.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker management falls into three general categories including cluster management, foraging habitat management and population monitoring. Individually, each is crucial to a successful management program though without all three, management becomes disjointed and ineffective.
The forest management section essentially manages foraging habitat through the prescription process and prescribed fire. Cluster management and population monitoring are the responsibility of the Threatened and Endangered Species section.
As nations around the world progress industrially, and as the population of man grows, animal populations decline for various reasons, according to Ten Brink. The decline in animal diversity has not gone unnoticed, and governments have since passed laws to aid in the prevention of extinction.
Through various recovery programs and conservation techniques initiated by many laws, several endangered species today are making a comeback in the wild. As the base works to develop a suitable balance at which man and wildlife can survive together, people will witness the new growth in populations of animals once on the verge of extinction, and their existence in nature will again be appreciated.
“In the future, we plan to continue the woodpecker’s preservation and procreation by using more of the same tactics,” said Ten Brink. “Over time, we may increase the burning rates to burn more frequently and during growing seasons to maximize the birds’ habitat as much as we can.”