The ANHC accomplishes big things with its small staff, thanks to help from its many partners. One of those key partners is Ricky O’Neill, a wildlife biologist and forestry manager with Potlatch Timber Corporation in Warren, Arkansas. Ricky has been instrumental in working with the ANHC and many of its other partners in planning protection, restoration, and management strategies of a once vast “open pine” ecosystem. Open pine is dominated by widely spaced, large pine trees with a lush ground cover of grasses, flowering plants, and few shrubs. This supports a number of animals and plants dependent on this habitat, such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW, Picoides borealis), and other rare species such as the quickly declining northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus).
Ricky has had incredible success in restoring and managing this imperiled habitat at one of our collaborative project sites, Moro Big Pine Natural Area-Wildlife Management Area (MBPNA). Potlatch Timber Company owns fee title to this 15,922-acre area and the ANHC and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission collectively own a conservation easement on that land. Together, these partners developed and implemented a management plan which is reviewed each year at an annual meeting for conservation, forestry, and timber activities. Ricky has provided the key leadership for all of those activities, particularly conservation and forestry.
Ricky began working on MBPNA in 2007 when it joined the state System of Natural Areas. At that time, 17 active territories of RCWs and very little of the habitat had been managed with prescribed burns. Fire is key to maintaining the health of this habitat; it favors fire tolerant pine trees and develops an open, park-like appearance. This allows sun to hit the ground, promoting native grasses and forbs (flowering plants). Collectively, the widely spaced pines and the lush ground cover form the foundation for this ecosystem which is essential for many species that have become rare as the habitat has nearly disappeared.
It didn’t take Ricky long to start making progress at MBPNA and now there are 23 active territories of RCWs on the natural area. Ricky has accomplished this through habitat restoration and management, as well as oversight of monitoring and management of the RCWs. He has done a tremendous job of developing Potlatch’s prescribed fire program. For example, when the natural area was created in 2007 there were about 1,000 acres included in annual prescribed burns. Only four years later, there were 3,000 acres included in prescribed burns per year, and that climbed to 4,000 acres during the four-year period ending in 2016.
In addition to land management for prescribed burns, Ricky oversees installation and maintenance of artificial roost and next cavities for the RCWs. This increases the likelihood of their survival and chances for nesting, and provides homes for birds fledged in the next few years. Ricky’s expertise and leadership has been outstanding in the recovery of open pine habitat at MBPNA and he has been a strong contributor to similar efforts throughout southern Arkansas.