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Mutual Aid to the Rescue for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Virginia
By Catherine J. Hibbard
Photo Credit: John Maxwell, USFWS
At the northernmost point of its range, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is on the road to recovery, thanks to a tight-knit partnership.
Piney Grove Preserve, 3,200 acres (1,295 hectares) of mature pine owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Sussex County, Virginia, is home to a growing population of red-cockaded woodpeckers: 68 birds last year, up from only 12 birds in 1999.
“It’s taken a lot of work, but we’re steadily making progress,” said Brian van Eerden, Director of TNC’s Southern Rivers Program. In 2011, 25 chicks left the nest for an almost 70 percent increase in productivity.
Van Eerden credits this success to protecting forests where the woodpeckers live and using controlled burns to restore open understory preferred by the birds.
“Tim Craig of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been a leader in pulling together a partnership to meet our burn goals,” said van Eerden.
Craig, a zone fire management officer at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk, Virginia, has assembled a burn crew from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TNC and the State of Virginia. The crew collectively pools their resources to accomplish as a group what one individual organization alone could not.
At Piney Grove, that means quadrupling burn acreage. The Nature Conservancy has gone from burning 300 to 400 acres (121 ha to 161 ha) a year to 1,700 acres (688 ha) last year.
“TNC and the State of Virginia help us burn on our land as much as we burn on theirs,” said Craig. “Their assistance helps us achieve goals of reducing hazardous fuels.”
Someday it may also help the refuge maintain 2,000 acres (809 ha) recently thinned to create red-cockaded woodpecker habitat.
The level of camaraderie in the fire partnership is unique. “There’s no turf aspect,” said Bobby Clontz, the preserve manager at Piney Grove. “We have a coordination call every Monday morning. Whatever is the next priority gets burned.”
Rick Myers, the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, agrees. “We train together, we work together, we’re friends,” he says. “We want to help each other on a personal level as well as on an agency level.”
According to Myers, it is a partnership that other Virginia agencies are paying attention to. Motivated by success at Piney Grove, the Commonwealth recently bought 4,400 acres (1,780 ha) next to the preserve to create Big Woods Wildlife Management Area and State Forest, which is good news for the red-cockaded woodpecker.
And in even better news, TNC, the Service and the State of Virginia are plugged into larger long-term efforts to restore longleaf pine communities, of which only 3 percent of an original 90 million acres (36.4 million ha) remain.
The Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Virginia funded $162 thousand to restore 478 acres (193 ha) of longleaf pine at Piney Grove, Big
Woods and Cherenohaka Nottoway tribal lands. Last year, fire crews helped burn to restore longleaf at the tribal lands, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and a tract privately owned by Bill Owen.
A proud steward, Owen has restored 400 acres of longleaf pine. “My goal is 1,000 acres (405 ha)!” said Owen. “I love the species. I love the ecosystem that comes with it . . . the grasses, the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), the Bachman’s sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis) and the red-cockaded woodpecker.”
Owen has received grants from the Service and other federal agencies to revert his family land back to longleaf.
“It takes all of us together to make it happen,” added Myers. “In the end, everybody needs help.”
Catherine J. Hibbard, a Wildlife Refuge Specialist in the Service’s Northeast Regional Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-253-8569.
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