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Red-cockaded Woodpecker Recovery: From Conflict to Collaboration
Photo Credit: Eric Spadgenske, USFWS
Since being designated as endangered in 1968, red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) populations across the Southeast have been in steady decline. The bird’s preferred habitat of longleaf pine forests once covered more than 90 million acres (36.4 million hectares) from Texas to Virginia. Beginning in the late 1800s, those forests were systematically cut for timber and cleared for farm fields. Today less than 3.4 million acres (1.4 million ha) of longleaf pine forests remain.
The North Carolina Sandhills (NC Sandhills) is approximately one million acres (404,685 ha) in extent, covering all or parts of 8 counties. The area is best known for the longleaf pine ecosystem and the incredible species diversity associated with it. The NC Sandhills also contain the second largest concentration of the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in existence. However, over the years, the longleaf pine ecosystem in the NC Sandhills has been diminishing in scope due to rapid changes in land use patterns. Between the 1970s and 2000s fragmentation and lack of management of longleaf pine habitat in the NC Sandhills caused a significant reduction in the number of red-cockaded woodpecker groups and demographically divided the historic population into two populations. Loss of longleaf pine habitat occurred to such an extent that this habitat type was named a globally threatened status by The Nature Conservancy.
Additionally, competing land uses including military training on Fort Bragg and Camp Mackall, horse farms, residential and commercial development and golf course construction contributed to the decline of longleaf pine forests. Traditional private forested lands were being converted at a rapid rate leaving a fragmented mosaic of land use patterns surrounding and separating two distinct aggregations of public lands; approximately 170,000 acres (approximately 69,000 ha) in the Fort Bragg/Weymouth Woods/McCain complex and the approximately 65,000 acres in the Sandhills Game Land/Camp Mackall complex. Since the late 1970s these public lands have fast become the last strongholds of managed longleaf pine habitat and associated natural species diversity in the North Carolina Sandhills.
In 1990 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued a Jeopardy Biological Opinion which required the United States Army at Fort Bragg to recover the local population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Recognizing the importance of the region’s unique ecosystems to both military training and to the nation’s endangered species, a collaborative process was begun in the mid-1990s to integrate private and public land management concerns and objectives in order to provide a vehicle to focus the efforts of a variety of stakeholder groups. Thus was born the North Carolina Sandhills Conservation Partnership (NCSCP) in 2000.
The purpose of the NCSCP is to facilitate collaboration between various federal, state and non-profit conservation groups for the purpose of conserving the vanishing longleaf pine ecosystem and recovering the red-cockaded woodpecker in the NC Sandhills.
The NCSCP Steering Committee consists of federal, state, and non-profit organizations including: the Service, Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army Environmental Center, The Nature Conservancy, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, the North Carolina Forest Service, the Sandhills Ecological Institute, the Sandhills Area Land Trust, and several other regional stakeholders.
The NCSCP has five active stakeholder working groups that are charged with developing selected sections of a Sandhills Conservation Plan. These sections include a reserve design, communications plan, and strategies for land protection, red-cockaded woodpecker recovery, and natural resource management.
“Before the partnership began, the relationship between the military and environmental advocates was strained, especially in regard to the red-cockaded woodpecker,” says Pete Campbell, a wildlife biologist and the partnership coordinator in the Service’s Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office.
However, because of this partnership, the NC Department of Agriculture, NC Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Recreation, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and The Nature Conservancy agreed to manage their lands to promote recovery of the Sandhills population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Originally, only Fort Bragg had the responsibility to manage at the recovery level. This was a significant contribution to the Sandhills recovery effort. The additional lands contributed, together with increasing emphasis on habitat management, and are the primary reasons that in 2006, biologists were able to validate that both populations had sufficient numbers of red-cockaded woodpecker groups to achieve recovery status, five years earlier than projected.
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