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Proposed downlisting of red cockaded woodpecker a conservation victory for Eglin

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

Due in large part to long-term conservation efforts like those undertaken on Eglin Air Force Base, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes the time is right to remove the red cockaded woodpecker from the federal endangered species list.

The agency in September proposed "downlisting" the bird from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

More:Endangered species thrive on Eglin’s reservation

More:See photos of Florida's endangered species

The red cockaded woodpecker population has rebounded on Eglin Air Force Base's reservation.

"The proposal follows decades of conservation partnerships on behalf of the woodpecker, which saw its populations and numbers increase across its range," the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a news release.

A virtual public hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 1, a week before the Fish and Wildlife Service terminates a 60-day open comment period and begins deliberating the downlisting decision. The hearing "will provide interested parties an opportunity to present formal, oral comments regarding the proposed rule," the release said.

The state of Florida moved the red cockaded woodpecker off of its endangered species list near the turn of the century, and in 2003 downlisted it to a species of special concern.

More:Four sea turtle species on Eglin beaches for first time

Red cockaded woodpeckers are unique even among their own species in a couple of ways. In Northwest Florida they thrive in longleaf pine forests where they nest in trees averaging 60 to 100 years old, according to the Nature Conservancy. The red cockaded woodpecker is the only woodpecker that bores a hole into a living tree to make its nest, which by some estimates is a task that can take up to six years.

The birds also live in what are known as clusters. These groupings typically include a mated pair, their current year’s offspring and helpers, which are primarily comprised of males from previous years' breeding, the Nature Conservancy says.  

The woodpecker's numbers dwindled due to the clear-cutting in longleaf pine forests across the South. It was listed as endangered in 1969, not long before the Endangered Species Act of 1973 mandated wildlife conservation efforts on federal lands around the country.

Eglin Air Force Base wildlife biologist Justin Johnson prepares to install an artificial red cockaded woodpecker cavity into a longleaf pine tree on the Eglin reservation. The use of artificial cavities is one of many techniques the base has used to help grow the bird’s population.

When efforts to save the red cockaded woodpecker were initiated, it was estimated there were fewer than 4,000 clusters of the birds, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its news release. 

"Today, the Service estimates that there are nearly 7,800 clusters ranging across 11 states from southern Virginia to eastern Texas," it said. 

About a quarter of the woodpeckers' total population lives in Florida, and federal conservation efforts within the state have been largely focused on the Eglin Air Force Base reservation and in Apalachicola National Forest.

The process of recovery at Eglin began in 1990 with initial surveys of red cockaded woodpecker breeding pairs to determine where and how many groups were present, according to Mike Spaits, spokesman for Jackson Guard, the Resource Management Section at the base.

"Through the years, the Jackson Guard staff worked diligently to foster a favorable environment for the diminished RCW population to grow," Spaits said. "The entire team worked to improve their habitat through use of prescribed fire and forestry management activities, and they created artificial nesting and roosting cavities."

A red cockaded woodpecker feeds on a tree on Eglin Air Force Base's reservation.

Recreating the bird's habitat was followed by a comprehensive population monitoring initiative to document the progress of the program, Spaits said.

In 1994, there were estimated to be 184 red cockaded woodpecker family clusters on Eglin. The population had grown to 313 clusters by 2003 when the state removed the bird from the endangered species list, and to 371 in 2009, Spaits said.

"All of these efforts paid off in 2009, when Eglin exceeded the population goal as set by the USFWS in the species recovery plan; more than doubling the numbers of breeding pairs," he said. 

There are estimated to be 507 potential breeding groups on Eglin today, Spaits said.  

As conservation efforts took hold over the years, the red cockaded woodpecker was credited, or blamed, for forcing the Air Force to re-route reservation traffic and the Army Rangers to cancel live fire training at Eglin’s Fort Rucker — bullets were damaging woodpecker nesting trees.

Tests for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, even had to be diverted from Eglin to Edwards Air Force Base in California.

But the success at Jackson Guard allowed for the creation of a USFWS Programmatic Biological Opinion in 2013, which enables maximum mission flexibility allowed under the Endangered Species Act, Spaits said.

"It is accurate to state that the mission of the Eglin Test and Training Range would be severely restricted without the persistent efforts of Eglin’s Natural Resources Section personnel to elevate the RCW status from near extinction, to endangered, and now to threatened status," Spaits said. 

Jackson Guard's achievement's have not gone unnoticed by the base commander.

"As the Installation Commander of Eglin Air Force Base’s 464,000-acre reservation, I can’t tell you how proud I am of this phenomenal accomplishment, and how important it is to ensuring our critical mission of national defense continue," Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of Eglin's 96th Test Wing, said of the proposed downlisting.

Some, however, are leery of the planned move by the Fish and Wildlife Service, particularly in light of the damage done in the area of the Apalachicola National Forest by Hurricane Michael in 2018.

"Audubon loves nothing more than to celebrate a success story under the Endangered Species Act, and by all rights, we have seen tremendous improvements in Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW) and longleaf habitat management," said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of the Audubon Society of Florida. "Nevertheless, we are glad it will retain threatened status and are gravely concerned for what the future holds for RCWs, especially in light of climate change."

Wraithmell said Hurricane Michael "dealt a devastating blow" to longleaf pine habitat in Florida's central Panhandle, home to the largest breeding population of red cockaded woodpeckers.

"With increasing storm intensity and frequency, how will RCW habitat fare in the future?" she asked.

"The memory of the Southeast’s lost Ivory-billed woodpecker is a stark reminder that habitat matters, and it takes days to destroy what took decades and centuries to grow," Wraithmell said in an email. "Protection is always more effective and less expensive than restoration. Status determinations like this must take into account climate impacts to truly be complete."

For more information, or to take part in the Dec. 1 public hearing, visit https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/birds/red-cockaded-woodpecker/#recovery-plan-section.   

Federally listed endangered and threatened animal species that can be found on Eglin Air Force Base:

Amphibians:

  • Florida bog frog
  • Reticulated flatwoods salamander
  • Gopher frog
  • Pine Barrens tree frog

Birds

  • Least tern
  • Piping plover
  • Red cockaded woodpecker
  • Snowy plover
  • Wood stork

Mammals

  • Manatee

Reptiles

  • Alligator snapping turtle
  • American alligator
  • Barbour's map turtle
  • Eastern indigo snake
  • Florida pine snake
  • Gopher tortoise
  • Green sea turtle
  • Hawkbill sea turtle
  • Kemp's Ridley sea turtle
  • Leatherback sea turtle
  • Loggerhead sea turtle

Source - Corvias property management firm.