An endangered bird is making a comeback after nearly three decades of careful forestry management on a coastal Georgia Army post. 

Red-cockaded woodpeckers at Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation east of the Mississippi, have been steadily increasing in population since the Department of Defense began working to save the dwindling species in 1994. 

The red-cockaded woodpecker is making a comeback, in part due to work being done at Fort Stewart. Credit: fws.gov

The resurgence of the rare birds, a result of good forestry management practices, are among reasons why the post was awarded the 2020 Secretary of the Army Environmental Award for Natural Resources Conservation for a large Installation in April. 

“We reached our recovery goal of 350 pairs back in 2012 and the population continues to grow,” said Larry Carlile, Chief of the Fish and Wildlife branch at Fort Stewart. “Everything so far shows that we have another increase this year.” 

The birds require mature longleaf pine forests and live in cavities they hollow out of old longleaf pine trees. Decades of timber over harvesting, poor agricultural practices and fire suppression resulted in the destruction of much of the birds’ habitat.

In addition to seasonally appropriate controlled burns and tagging the birds, the Army post also installed about 4,000 artificial cavity boxes on the trunks of mature trees.

“We are right on the cusp of this forest being old enough for them to excavate all their cavities without us doing it for them, but we intend to keep doing this to help prop them up until the forest reaches the proper age,” Carlile said.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers were designated a federally endangered species in the 1970s. Last year, the Trump administration proposed downlisting the bird from endangered status to threatened status as the U.S. 

The Department of Agriculture Forestry Service estimated nearly 7,800 clusters living in 11 states from southern Virginia to eastern Texas, according to a September 2020 report.

Jeff Mangun, chief of Stewart-Hunter Forestry Branch, said the controlled burns, timber thinning, timber harvesting on base have helped not only the woodpeckers, but also the economy and soldiers in training.

Credit: Laura Corley/The Current

The Army advertises bids for wood buyers and commercial loggers and hires private companies to cut the timber to the Army’s specification. Money made from timber sales, by law, must be returned to the forestry branch, which uses it to pay for forestry management.

The post has harvested 38,228 acres of timber in the past decade, according to an informational poster presented to newsmakers during a media day at the base June 14, 2021. The Current requested information about how much revenue timber sales raised and information about the contractors; the base did not respond by publication. 

Fort Stewart has the largest prescribed burn program in North America of any one public or private contiguous land holding, Mangun said. The burn season is Dec. 1 through June 30. The Army uses helicopters to ignite and monitor the burns, which amount to roughly 120,000 acres per year.

The Army branch also thins the forest by reducing the number of trees per area, which allows for an understory suitable for army training. 

That’s also good for the flatwoods salamanders that live there. The amphibians are the last known colony living in Georgia and one of three on Earth.

The Current highlighted the species in a February article that detailed the reasons for its decline and efforts to save the cryptic critters. A month after the article was published, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a long overdue draft plan which provides official guidance for how best to care for the species by providing the proper conditions to ensure its survival.

The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.

Laura Corley is an investigative reporter who has covered public safety and government and education in her home state of Georgia since 2014. At The (Macon) Telegraph, Laura used open records requests...