What can halt training and maneuvers at one of the world’s most strategically crucial military installations?

Neither foreign threats nor civil unrest have disrupted the mission at Fort Bragg.

Rather, a bird holds that infamous distinction.

Over 20 years ago, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service imposed stringent training restrictions on Fort Bragg due to the degradation of habitat of the endangered red cockaded woodpecker.

Since then, Fort Bragg has achieved significant successes in the recovery of its red cockaded woodpecker populations and has recently removed additional training restrictions on the installation.

“Soldiers can now maneuver and train across vast expanses of forested land without encountering red cockaded woodpecker restrictions,” said Jacqueline Britcher, chief of Fort Bragg Endangered Species.

The red cockaded woodpecker is one of eight local woodpecker species and one of five federally endangered species on the installation. The birds create roosting and nesting cavities by excavating old growth longleaf pine trees and they live primarily in groups of cavity trees called clusters. An adult female and an adult male who occupy the same cluster are considered a potential breeding group. In the longleaf pine ecosystem, the red cockaded woodpecker is an indicator species - a species whose presence, absence or relative well-being in a given environment is a sign of the overall health of the ecosystem.

The destruction of its unique habitat through deforestation, development and suppression of beneficial fire has contributed to its decline. Fort Bragg is recognized as one of the few remaining large, contiguous tracts of longleaf pine in the world. Since Fort Bragg is required to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act, the installation must also protect and manage old growth pine forests, which also benefit other endangered, rare and native species and provide quality training lands.

To address these concerns, Fort Bragg limited training within 200 feet of protected red cockaded woodpecker clusters and designated these areas with protective signage. Training activities permitted within the 200 foot buffer were subject to restrictions in accordance with Installation Range Regulation 350-6 and the Army Red Cockaded Woodpecker Management Guidelines. These restrictions limited the scope and duration of military activities.

“When we were in full training restrictions, Soldiers could do nothing,” said Michael Lynch, the director of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security.

“If you entered a woodpecker cluster, you could only walk through it. You could not dig. You could not use a generator. You could not be in the middle of a fire fight with blanks. You could not use pyrotechnics or smoke. You physically had to stop training.”

Through regional partnerships, habitat management and population management, the presence of red cockaded woodpeckers on Fort Bragg has increased, and the Soldiers and the birds have learned to live in harmony.

The North Carolina Sandhills Conservation Partnership has acquired over 25,000 acres of land for habitat protection and training and it has protected nearly 20 miles of the Fort Bragg boundary.

The NCSCP was the basis for the first Army Compatible Use Buffer program at Fort Bragg. Now in effect at numerous installations, the ACUB program creates land conservation partnerships between the Army and community agencies to protect land from development that is incompatible with the Army mission.

On the installation, the Fort Bragg Environmental Division promotes habitat management for the red cockaded woodpecker by conducting prescribed burns, thinning pines and removing mid-story hardwoods to maintain the health of the forests and to open the canopy, thereby improving thousands of acres of land for peak military maneuver capability.

Other practices include installing artificial cavities to stabilize groups, providing roost and nest habitat as the forest ages and documenting success through population monitoring.

“This has been a long journey of learning, but one that has paid multiple benefits to Fort Bragg, the Army and the nation,” said Lynch.

“When we started down this road, all we had was a blank slate and a need to find a solution that would bring the community and its resources to the table. The work that was done since then has far exceeded anything we could have imagined.”

In 2005, Fort Bragg reached a population recovery milestone when the post became the first Army installation to reach its goal of 350 potential breeding groups, which also included about 20 groups on partnership properties. The 2007 Army Red Cockaded Woodpecker Management Guidelines stipulate that installations that reach their population goals may remove all training restrictions and protective signage following consultation with the USFWS. Fort Bragg received a favorable biological opinion from the USFWS to remove a majority of those restrictions in 2009. Training limitations were lifted from about 50 percent of the clusters to restore about 3,000 acres of land to unrestricted inventory.

(Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part series about the recovery of the red cockaded woodpecker.)