• Maryland Forests

Did you know that managing forest age diversity is an important aspect of wildlife management?

Updated: Aug 12



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,”

Whitbeck says.


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

ghost forests.


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

LINKS TO LEARN MORE:

Blackwater Wildlife Refuge

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Blackwater/about.html

Friends of Blackwater

https://www.friendsofblackwater.org/about.html

National Wildlife Refuge System

https://www.fws.gov/refuges/

Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/eastern_neck/

Young Forest Project

https://youngforest.org/