Did you know that managing forest age diversity is an important aspect of wildlife management?
Updated: May 23, 2022
Meet Matt Whitbeck, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at Blackwater Refuge
For Matt Whitbeck, wildlife biologist at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in
Dorchester County, Maryland, there is “always something fascinating on the landscape.” Managing and
keeping a healthy landscape for wildlife and people to enjoy is the purpose of a wildlife refuge
like Blackwater, and Whitbeck has enjoyed every minute of working in this environment.
He’s always been an outdoors person and as he puts it, his family “couldn’t drive by a
brown sign” pointing toward a park, wildlife refuge, WMA, or NRMA. Whitbeck’s roots to the
woods and wildlife were set early and his travels through academia and the workplace spread
wide, from Arizona to Texas to Alaska to Cambridge. Regardless of miles traveled, he knew he
wanted to do something with natural resources management.
Originally from Massachusetts, he ended up in Arizona for an undergraduate degree
from Prescott College in 1995. While gaining experience through internships at refuges, he’d
work on fishing boats in Alaska to earn enough money to continue his time as a refuge intern.
Whitbeck’s graduate studies at Texas A&M University resulted in a position at Anahuac National
Wildlife Refuge, working with tidal wetlands, where he stayed for 12 years before moving to
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. Both he and his wife, the
volunteer coordinator for the refuge, ended up calling Blackwater home after she had a stint at
Eastern Neck, yet another national wildlife refuge that can be discovered in Maryland.
Founded in 1933, Blackwater is where Whitbeck “quickly realized that we need active
forest management” for successful wildlife management. Seeing the incredible range of bird
species, from wood thrush to prairie warbler, the well-traveled biologist learned the “mosaic of
age classes” among trees that our feathered friends require. While forest interior dwelling
species, or FIDS, such as a barred owl may prefer mature forests, a northern bobwhite quail
likes to call young forest stands home.
With over 29,000 acres of marshland and mixed forest types, Blackwater’s diversity is
what invigorates Whitbeck. The intensive management required to protect and preserve the
land for the benefit of its wildlife inhabitants and the public makes his work a true joy. Whitbeck
points to the refuge’s history of species success stories like the Delmarva fox squirrel and bald
eagles, both of which have been delisted from the Endangered Species Act, as well as working
toward eradicating invasive nutria on the landscape.
Creating habitats for this diversity of wildlife is a challenge the wildlife biologist enjoys,
and working with people like the Forestry Advisory Group helps Whitbeck work with the forest
products industry to put good habitat on the ground for wildlife. The “dynamic” relationship
between marshland and forest keeps him on his toes. “One thing that has become more and
more apparent to me over time is that habitats and associated wildlife change over time,”
The need for hands-on, active forest management has never been clearer than in the
face of sea-level rise and resulting ghost forests, stands of dead trees aka snags that haunt the
Blackwater landscape everywhere. These “shrinking forests” are part of one of the refuge’s
most important roles, according to Whitbeck — getting people out to see nature and the
firsthand effects of sea-level rise, and that it’s real. “This is still a changing landscape,” he says,
citing how marshland is sliding upslope and the ongoing invasion of Phragmites.
Appreciating the broad natural history of the refuge and how things are changing informs
Whitbeck in his work and partnerships to preserve as best as possible this landscape shifting
before his very eyes. “Resource managers have to deal with this,” Whitbeck says when
discussing climate change and its real-time impacts such as sea-level rise and its signature
Whether it’s working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on dredge placement/marsh
restoration projects, or the MD Forest Service on timber harvests and forest management, he
knows “very little gets done without partners.” The Conservation Fund, Audubon Maryland-DC,
Maryland Forests Association, Ducks Unlimited, The Chesapeake Conservancy, and The Nature
Conservancy are all key partners Blackwater refuge staff work with frequently.
Friends of Blackwater is one of Whitbeck’s most vital allies in working on the refuge.
Founded in 1987, they play “a critical role” in everything from fundraising to environmental
education for Blackwater and nature’s foot soldiers like Matt Whitbeck.
“I love working in the Chesapeake because there are so many people doing good
things,” says Whitbeck. It’s this critical mass of people working toward shared goals that makes
striving for healthier forests and good land stewardship within the Bay watershed a pursuit of
passion for him. In the end, “there is something for everybody and programs for all people” at
Blackwater and Whitbeck is proud to be a steward for the refuge, from marshland to mixed
forest stands, and all it has to offer.
Photo Credit: EDWIN REMSBERG PHOTOGRAPHS
Project Support: RURAL MARYLAND COUNCIL
LINKS TO LEARN MORE:
Blackwater Wildlife Refuge
Friends of Blackwater
National Wildlife Refuge System
Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge
Young Forest Project