The North Florida Land Trust says an endangered woodpecker recently found at Camp Blanding in Clay County proves that a big preservation project is working.
Red cockaded woodpeckers are a federally endangered species. They’re considered a keystone species because the cavities they make for their nests are used by other animals, contributing to the species richness of their ecosystem.
They used to be common from New Jersey to Florida and as far west as Texas, but now they’re only found in small pockets where their natural forest habitats survive. The birds are dependent on old-growth longleaf pine, which currently exists across just 3% of its original range.
Longleaf pine ecosystems once covered about 90 million acres. Initial declines are attributed to European settlement in the 1700s, widespread timber harvesting and the naval stores/turpentine industry in the 1800s. Commercial tree farming, urbanization and agriculture in the mid-1900s contributed to further declines.
As those ecosystems were lost, the red-cockaded woodpeckers retreated to the remaining old-growth forests in places like the Osceola and Ocala National Forests and Camp Blanding. The woodpeckers are non-migratory and don’t usually go far from their home forest stand.
But a red-cockaded woodpecker from Osceola National Forest was recently captured at Camp Blanding.
“That’s a distance, if it flew in a straight line, of about 27 miles,” said Jim McCarthy, president of the North Florida Land Trust (NFLT).
This is the first documented instance of the endangered species moving between one of the national forests and the military installation since researchers started banding and recording the birds over 25 years ago.
“The migration of this one little bird is a big deal because it proves the populations we have in the O2O want to move and expand over the landscape to find other red-cockaded woodpeckers to reproduce,” McCarthy said. “Helping them to do that is exactly the goal of our O2O Wildlife Corridor project.”
The Ocala to Osceola, or O2O, project is a more than 100-mile long wildlife corridor that the NFLT and their partners created to connect wildlife in Central Florida’s Ocala National Forest to the Osceola National Forest in North Florida via existing protected areas like Camp Blanding.
“Camp Blanding happens to be smack in the middle of that,” said McCarthy. “And of course, with its 70,000 acres of land, Blanding plays a key role in building that wildlife corridor.”
More than 18 conservation agencies and nonprofits, including the National Forest Service, the Florida National Guard and the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), have collaborated on this project and they’re still working to protect and preserve additional land.
“That was a tough voyage for that woodpecker because none of its habitat exists between here and Osceola,” said Paul Catlett, environmental manager for Camp Blanding. “It would have endured a number of nights exposed, in the open, with poor forage to survive on.”
The NFLT and its O2O partners are working to change that, for the red-cockaded woodpeckers and all wildlife in North Florida.
The group is trying to preserve a continuous strip of land between Ocala and Osceola and restore the old-growth longleaf pine habitats that used to thrive there. That corridor would span a third of the state, helping endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker recover and allowing all wildlife to migrate, forage for food and mate more freely.
“The reality is a number of woodpeckers have probably left Ocala, Osceola and Camp Blanding before, searching for good habitat and simply didn’t make it,” Catlett said. “This bird is extremely lucky to find a place that could support it.”
The NFLT and its partners are working with private landowners in the O2O to preserve land, either through conservation easements or land sales for new parks and preserves, and to restore longleaf pine forests on their property.
“These public-private partnerships can have an impact that’s well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own,” said Russell Morgan, a state conservationist with the Florida NRCS.
The NRCS and NFLT have made a $3,560,000 commitment through 2022 via the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to buy easements and give financial assistance to private landowners who want to restore longleaf pine on their land. Thousands of acres of land have already been preserved thanks to the partnership, but McCarthy said there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“The reality is that preserving the land, while difficult and expensive, is the quick part,” he said. “Restoring tens of thousands of acres of old-growth forest will be the work of generations.”