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V. Tech Researcher’s Work Helps Woodpecker Recovery

A red cockaded woodpecker at its nesting cavity. Note the two bands on the bird's right leg. Walters and his team use a number of different colored tags to track the birds.


The woods around Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina have, since 1986, featured an ever increasing rat-a-tat-tat sound that has nothing to do with weapons qualification training. The sound marks the 28-year recovery of the red cockaded woodpecker, said by some to be the spotted owl of the southeast because of its status on the endangered species list.

Critical to the birds’ comeback has been Jeff Walters, the Harold Bailey Professor of Biological Sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. A life-long bird lover, Walters has been working with, among others, the Marines and the U.S. Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to help the woodpeckers make a comeback from their spot on the endangered species list – and his strategies for doing so have worked remarkably well.

“In the late 1980s we had results from our basic research that suggested why the management strategy we were using at the time wasn’t working,” Walters explained. “Turns out the old strategy just wasn’t compatible with the dynamics of the birds’ social system.”

The RCW is one of a rare type of bird that is known as a ‘cooperative breeder.’ In the Blacksburg area, only the common crow uses a similar social system. Birds in this system, mostly males, live in family groups where the young remain with their parents instead of finding their own territories. The birds, called helpers, are actively involved in feeding the young, sitting on eggs, creating nesting cavities, and defending the territory. But they do not breed.

“The males may eventually move away to become breeders on another territory, or if the father dies, the oldest son will inherit the breeding position on the family territory,” Walters said. “Some birds that we’ve found have remained helpers for as long as 11 years.”

With his Department of Defense funded research at the bases, Walters has tried to figure out why the species was cooperative instead of the young flying off to find their own breeding spaces.

“The hypothesis I developed was that it was because of the nesting cavities they use,” he explained. “The cavities are so valuable that the birds competed for territories that already had cavities on them rather than claiming an unoccupied area or an otherwise nice habitat without cavities. Staying at home and waiting for an open breeding position on a territory with cavities, be it a home territory or a neighboring one, makes sense in a species that is so picky about what area is acceptable.”

Although a number of birds use or make holes in trees as nesting areas, the RCW is unique of all bird species in the world, in that it makes its nest holes in living pine trees instead of dead trees or in dead wood that is a part of living trees.

The strategy Walters decided upon was to figure out an acceptable drilling technique and to make cavities in an unoccupied habitat near current territories to see what would happen.

“Sure enough, helpers immediately left home and moved in to claim these suddenly acceptable new territories,” he said. “The previous management strategy didn’t recognize the importance of the cavities and had relied instead on providing nice pine habitat, which the birds never moved into. This of course, did no good at all since the problem was too few territories with cavities and not too few birds.”

In fact, Walters said, there were plenty of ‘extra’ adults (helpers) around, even in populations in decline and those populations were declining because the cavity trees were not being protected. When the trees were lost, territories went from good to unacceptable.

“It was the number of acceptable territories that was driving the numbers, not births and deaths of individual birds,” Walters explained. “Our new strategy, then, was obvious – install cavities in unoccupied spaces which we call ‘recruitment clusters’, to increase the number of family groups and replace lost cavities in existing territories to prevent reduction in numbers. We applied this strategy in a few areas as part of demonstration projects and it worked wonderfully.”

In fact, it worked so wonderfully, that Walters’ hypothesis and strategy turned into federal policy.

The Marine Corps base along the coast of North Carolina became the first area to test Walters’ development strategy and its success has broad implications because of the millions of acres across the Southeast which are managed for the RCW.

“My relationship with the base is very good, due largely to the fact they are keenly aware of the degree to which my work has reduced conflict between their requirement to recover the endangered woodpeckers under the Endangered Species Act and their military training mission,” Walters said. “We have a close working relationship down to the level of providing information about the use of individual acres of land by the woodpeckers.”

A single RCW territory runs about 150 acres and a population size of about 350 groups of the birds is required for recovery, meaning one population of the bird may require more than 50,000 acres.

“We know where every red-cockaded woodpecker on base lives, and which areas it uses to nest and forage,” Walters said.

In addition to the Marine base, Walters said he has works similar projects at Eglin AFB in Florida, where he’s been funded by DoD since 1996, and in the Sandhills of North Carolina where he’s been since 1983.

“The Sandhills study has been funded by DoD, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Science Foundation since 1980,” he said. “The DoD is involved in this area because the study area includes parts of the Army base at Fort Bragg.”  The project also includes public and private land as well as property owned by the Nature Conservancy.

The Eglin and Sandhills populations were in rapid decline when Walters implemented his recovery strategy and since that time both populations have increased to the point they’ve surpassed the 350 group criterion for recovery. And to monitor their progress, Walters and his team band all the individual birds in a study population with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum leg band plus unique combinations of colored leg bands that enable the researchers to identify individual birds and follow them through their lifetimes.

“In North Carolina we have long-term data sets now that track the lives of all the birds we’ve banded for generations,” Walters explained. “These data sets are very valuable for addressing questions about life history, responses to climate change, and all sorts of other things about ecology, population biology, and evolution. So a primary goal now is to keep those continuous data sets going and all sorts of students and collaborators use those data sets to test a wide variety of ideas and hypotheses.”

“When Europeans first arrived here the RCW was likely the most common woodpecker in the Southeast,” Walters said. “Since then, it’s become the rarest, so we take great pride in our success and in knowing that the work we’ve done has played a large role in a species that everyone thought was headed for extinction, is now heading for recovery."

This article was produced by the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Posted by Matt Cimitile: December 06, 2012

Discover Channel Produces Video on ABC Conservation Work at Powdermill



The American Bird Conservancy has been working to reduce the incidence of bird mortality from window collisions at the Powdermill Avian Research Center. Dr. Christine Sheppard has been at the forefront of this initivatie.  Recently the Discovery Channel has taken interest in the project and produced a five-minute video on the work of ABC and the Carneige Museum of Natural History.  Take a look at the video here.  The collisions story starts at about the 6:45 mark and ends at the 12 minute mark.

You can learn more about this innovative project at the Powdermill Avian Research Center website.   


Posted by Matt Cimitile: December 06, 2012

DEC Funding Available for Grassland Protection Program



Private landowners interested in enhancing and restoring critical grassland habitat could be eligible for grants totaling approximately $1 million, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens announced today. With grasslands declining in New York and nationwide, DEC's Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) for Grassland Protection and Management directs funding to projects on private property that will help at-risk species that depend on unique grassland ecosystems to survive.

"Through the Landowner Incentive Program, private landowners have been directly involved in conserving grasslands for a variety of species since 2008," Commissioner Martens said. "Governor Cuomo recognizes the value of this program for vital habitat protection. This latest round of grants will significantly increase the acreage of conservation grasslands and provide even greater benefits for New York's grassland species."

Grasslands provide important habitat for a variety of wildlife and are especially significant for birds. In New York, the endangered short-eared owl, the threatened Henslow's sparrow, and the threatened upland sandpiper need grasslands to avoid further declines in their populations. Grassland acreage in the state has decreased drastically over the last three decades primarily due to a reduction in pasture and hayfields, reversion of abandoned farmland to forests, and development of farmland. Between 1965 and 2006, pastures and hayfields in New York decreased by approximately 33 percent in area, and, during that time, grassland bird populations decreased at a fairly steady average rate of 6.5 percent per year.

To help address the loss of grasslands and associated at-risk species, the LIP was created as a partnership between DEC and private landowners since the vast majority of grasslands are privately owned. Under LIP, enrolled landowners that engage in stewardship activities that are beneficial for breeding grassland birds are compensated for their efforts. The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through State Wildlife Grants. This grant program was created and is funded by Congress to help rare and declining species before they require listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Michael F. Burger, Ph.D., Director of Conservation and Science for Audubon New York said, "Most of the grasslands in New York are on private lands, and the future of our grassland birds depends on the stewardship of those lands. DEC's Landowner Incentive Program is critical to provide the education, technical assistance and incentives that will help private landowners support those birds. We look forward to helping DEC make this program a success."

Eligible private landowners interested in offsetting the decline in grassland bird habitat and populations will be able to apply for technical advice and financial incentives of $110 or $113 per acre per year to conduct the prescribed site management. The higher rate will be applied for parcels of land located within 25 miles of large urban areas, reflecting higher soil rental rates near population centers. To be eligible to apply, an applicant must own at least 25 acres of contiguous grassland located within one of the grassland focus areas across the state. They include portions of the following counties: Allegany, Cayuga, Chemung, Clinton, Cortland, Erie, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Genesee, Herkimer, Jefferson, Livingston, Madison, Monroe, Montgomery, Niagara, Oneida, Onondaga, Ontario, Orleans, Otsego, Saratoga, Schoharie, Schuyler, Seneca, St. Lawrence, Steuben, Suffolk, Tompkins, Ulster, Washington, Warren, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates.

To learn more about the program and obtain an application form, visit the Protecting Grassland Birds on Private Lands page available on DEC's website. For questions or comments regarding the program, send an email to the program or call (518) 402-8943. The deadline for submitting a pre-application is January 15, 2013.

This press release was produced by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Posted by Matt Cimitile: November 28, 2012

Outdoor Ballot Initiatives Win Big on Election Day



Voters across the country gave strong support at the ballot box for conservation related initiatives during the 2012 election. This year, 46 of the 57 conservation funding ballots passed, an approval rate of 81 percent. There were three statewide initiatives on the ballot in 2012 as well as a number of municipal and county initiatives that ranged from bonds to tax increases. Together the passed initiatives will direct more than $2 billion towards conservation to support parks, open spaces, working farms and ranches, and to improve water quality; of that $767 million is new funding. In addition, four states supported ballot initiatives that amend the state’s constitution to guarantee citizens’ rights to hunt and fish, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.

“As we see time and again, conservation is an issue that unites the American people. American voters clearly see the value of nature in supporting clean air and water, local economies, storm and flood protection, jobs, healthy communities and recreation,” said Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “This election presents an open invitation for legislators to break through the partisan logjam that has stalled our nation for too long. If they want to achieve progress on critical issues and represent the desires of their constituents, support for conservation is a clear choice.”

In Alabama, 75 percent of voters supported a renewal of the Forever Wild land conservation program that is funded using 10 percent of interest from natural gas royalties (up to $15 million per year) and from revenues from the sale of Forever Wild license plates. Since its creation in 1992, the program has protected 227,000 acres and has secured recreational leases on additional land.  Almost two-thirds of Maine voters (62 percent) supported a bond initiative to add $5 million to the Land for Maine’s Future program. Established in 1987, the program has protected 445,000 acres (approximately 2/3 in easements and 1/3 in fee title acquisition), 973 miles of waterfront land and 158 miles of recreational trails. The program has secured $3 in matching funds for every dollar of bond funding used. In Rhode Island, a $20 million bond for protection of farms and open spaces passed with 70 percent of the vote.

“From Maine to Texas to San Francisco, we saw voters across the political spectrum say yes to taxes and spending for conservation that helps their communities,” said Will Rogers, President of The Trust for Public Land, whose organization tracks these conservation ballot initiatives. “Alabama voters gave their state to Mitt Romney at the same time they overwhelmingly renewed a statewide land conservation program, while Rhode Island voted for President Obama at the same time a statewide bond for open space was approved. This shows that while we may hold differing views about political offices, one thing that unites us all is the desire to build parks and protect land and water in our communities.”

Besides the conservation funding ballot initiatives, four states – Kentucky, Idaho, Nebraska and Wyoming – approved referenda to protect the rights of their citizens to hunt and fish; Idaho and Wyoming also included language to protect trapping. The right to hunt and fish initiatives received strong support in each of the states where they were on the ballot.  In Idaho, 74 percent of voters supported the amendment, Nebraska passed with nearly 77 percent of the vote.  Wyoming and Kentucky had even bigger landslide wins with support coming from 89 and 85 percent of voters respectively. These states join the thirteen states that have already passed similar constitutional amendments.

One ballot initiative that failed to pass by a two-thirds vote was a constitutional amendment in Arizona that would have declared sovereignty over the state’s natural resources including land, air, water, minerals and wildlife. The proposal was seen as part of the resurging “sagebrush rebellion” against federal land ownership and management. Proponents of the initiative argued that federal land is a burden on the state and hurts the economy of western states. Opponents countered that the effort was designed to undermine federal laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act and, if passed, the state would either sell off public lands or would allow development on them.

All of the various state ballot initiatives confirm the results of a Nature Conservancy poll released this summer that found that 87 percent of the American public agree that land and water conservation are an essential part of their state’s quality of life. While conservation seemed a small priority in debates at the presidential level, the issue continues to be a focus for states and communities across the country. 

This press release was produced by the Wildlife Management Institute.
Posted by Matt Cimitile: November 19, 2012

NWTF Habitat Project to Support Wild Turkey Populations



The NWTF and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) have formed a partnership to invest more than $300,000 to restore vanishing longleaf pine on private land in the Savannah River Corridor in South Carolina and Georgia.

Longleaf pine is a southern ecosystem that is critical to wild turkey, deer, quail and other wildlife, including many endangered species. Unlike other species of pine, longleaf are adapted to poor soils and are more suitable than other pine species for a wide variety of landscapes such as mountains, rolling hills, sandhills and flatwoods. Healthy longleaf pine forests are an important part of maximizing populations of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys throughout the south.

"The NWTF is excited to expand on its successful history of partnerships with the NFWF and our overall longleaf restoration efforts in the southeast. Partnering with our friends at the South Carolina and Georgia Forestry Commissions to implement this particular project is an excellent way for the NWTF to support private landowners in our own backyard," said NWTF Forester Gary Burger.

The longleaf pine ecosystem once covered more than 90 million acres across nine states. Today, only 3 percent of the original acreage remains. This effort is part of a larger collaborative effort to support accelerated restoration of longleaf pine. The NWTF project is part of an overall goal to maintain, improve and restore 8 million acres of longleaf pine within 15 years.

"This is just one project in a program that is providing close to $3 million in grant awards and technical support to restore the longleaf ecosystem," said David O'Neill, director of the Eastern Partnership Office at NFWF. "This suite of actions will have a huge impact across the southeastern U.S."

This press release was produced by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Posted by Matt Cimitile: November 12, 2012

New Partnership to Help Restore Bobwhite Quail



A ground-breaking memorandum of understanding has been signed between the NWTF and the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative to help restore bobwhite quail populations.

The partnership between the NWTF and NBCI combines a network of quail enthusiasts with proven track records of restoring and enhancing upland habitat. Efforts will take place on projects within focal areas that address the most critical conservation needs of both wild turkeys and bobwhite quail. These areas will be developed on regional, state and local levels and utilize cutting edge geospatial technology and existing partnerships to identify and implement these critical habitat projects.

"This agreement will allow us to bring together our biologists and volunteer resources with the NBCI's professional staff to benefit both wild turkeys and bobwhite quail," said NWTF Chief Conservation Officer James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D. "This is a tremendous win-win opportunity for conservationists and hunters of all kinds. We welcome the challenge of working with NBCI to bring back bobwhite quail to their original numbers."

Added NBCI Director Don McKenzie: "Targeted on-the-ground efforts of our private conservation partners that are coordinated with the states' NBCI implementation strategy are absolutely critical to achieving the goal of restoring huntable populations of wild bobwhite quail at the landscape level. We're extremely excited about NWTF, our largest private conservation partner, stepping up to the plate in this fashion."

The NWTF is best known for its 40 year history of working with wildlife agency partners, NWTF chapters and corporate sponsors to reestablish wild turkey populations across North America. While the wild turkey restoration is all but completed, the NWTF remains committed to improving critical wild turkey habitats across the United States and Canada.

During the past 15 years, NWTF has established itself as the leader in upland habitat conservation and has been responsible for conserving and enhancing millions of acres of upland habitat through cooperative projects with its conservation partners. These projects have benefited wild turkeys and a wide variety of wildlife species, including the bobwhite quail.

NBCI is a unified strategic effort made up of 25 state fish and wildlife agencies and various conservation organizations to restore critical native grassland habitats and huntable populations of bobwhite quail. NBCI provides national leadership, coordination and assistance to states and partners to accelerate implementation of efforts to restore bobwhite quail in its core range. The NBCI is based out of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

This press release was produced by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Posted by Matt Cimitile: November 12, 2012

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