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How The Military Helped Bring Back The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A bird story now - birds and leathernecks. Let me explain. The bird is the red-cockaded woodpecker, listed as endangered for more than half a century. In the final months of the Trump administration, federal wildlife officials started a process to downgrade that status. Conservation groups insist it's too soon. And Jay Price of member station WUNC picks it up from there.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: For a bird that once threatened some of the nation's largest and most powerful military bases, the red-cockaded woodpecker needs a startling amount of human help.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEED WHACKER)

PRICE: Here at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps' main East Coast infantry base, a crew uses leaf blowers, weed trimmers and machetes to clear a circle around the base of a cavity tree, a mature pine where the birds make their homes by gouging out a hole high up. Craig Ten Brink watches. He's a wildlife biologist who manages the base's threatened and endangered species program.

CRAIG TEN BRINK: The sap that the woodpeckers cause to drip down the tree is highly flammable. So if the grass and other vegetation has built up around the tree, that's likely to catch fire.

PRICE: There are more than a thousand cavity trees on the base. It can take a decade for the birds to carve the holes, so each tree is a valuable asset that must be documented and managed. The entire forest must be maintained, too - the underbrush cleared with periodic burning. Then, of course, there are the birds themselves. Biologists try to identify and track every one of the hundreds here by fitting them with color-coded bands.

TEN BRINK: It's a lot of work.

PRICE: It is a lot of work, and similar efforts are required on several major military bases across the southeast, which are home to some of the largest pockets of the woodpeckers. There were once millions of the birds. Fire suppression and logging shrank that to a few thousand. They were declared endangered in 1970. And in the early 1990s, the bird's problem became the military's.

MIKE LYNCH: We got a jeopardy opinion from the Fish and Wildlife Service which basically said that all of our military training had to come to a halt because it was threatening the continued existence of the red-cockaded woodpecker.

PRICE: Back then, Mike Lynch was on the leadership team at Fort Bragg, the nation's largest army base, where he oversaw training areas. He remembers a bird-triggered crisis. Some units were even briefly forced to train out of state. And the woodpeckers were a problem for other bases. At first, it seemed like the biologists and soldiers were speaking different languages.

LYNCH: We couldn't sit in a room for more than 20 minutes without getting into a heated debate.

PRICE: But then, Lynch says, they realized something.

LYNCH: We all had the same interests. We all wanted open space. We wanted good forests. We wanted places, you know, that were going to be here in 100 years.

PRICE: That's when the army began working with conservation groups, state and local governments and private landowners, not just to increase the woodpecker population on base but to preserve forest around it to give the birds more habitat, which also happens to protect the bases from encroaching development that could hamper training. But now the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove the bird from the endangered list and change its status to threatened. Kristi Young is with the Wildlife Service.

KRISTI YOUNG: It no longer meets the definition of endangered species, you know, that it is threatened by extinction, basically.

PRICE: The woodpecker is a success story. There are nearly 7,800 family-sized clusters, up from fewer than 1,500. But environmentalists say it's too early to declare victory for the woodpecker. Ramona McGee is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. She says that the Wildlife Service hasn't even met the targets in its own recovery plan.

RAMONA MCGEE: The best available science shows that this species is still endangered and the Fish and Wildlife Service should not be changing the status of the species.

PRICE: Environmentalists see the move as part of a larger pattern of Trump administration attempts to erode environmental protections. The downgrading is still under consideration, even with a new administration.

LYNCH: We as a society have gotten to where we are today with this species through hard work and partnerships.

PRICE: Lynch, the former Fort Bragg official, says that those partnerships became models for similar conservation efforts at bases across the country. The Pentagon has spent more than a billion dollars on those and attracted hundreds of millions more from conservation groups. Lynch fears changing the bird's status would drain the energy from the unusual coalitions assembled to protect it.

LYNCH: It doesn't take long for a forest to choke itself out or a species to be on the brink if it's not properly managed.

PRICE: And that, he said, impacts all of us. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY MOTTOLA AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "WOODPECKER SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.