Finding a Future for an Endangered Bird

An innovative program is putting private landowners on the side of the red-cockaded woodpecker.

  • Michael Lipske
  • Apr 01, 1996
The operation at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle is reminiscent of the opening scene from the late 1970s Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. A helicopter comes out of the distant blue horizon, flying low over a verdant expanse of forest. The "wop-wop-wop" of the engine pulses in the air. The chopper fires spherical objects, like ping-pong balls, at the ground, and flames burst against the trees. "It's like starting a zillion lightning-strike fires all over the place," says Carl Petrick, the man who has called this air strike. "You can burn well over a 1,000 acres an hour."

Petrick plans these flights of flame not to destroy the forest but to restore it. He is a civilian biologist in charge of Eglin's wildlife management, and he knows that fire will make the area more suitable habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species and the center of often-controversial management programs.

The birds live in southern pine forests and require woods relatively clear of undergrowth. In earlier times, fires started by lightning burned much of the southern pine forest every few years, incinerating the understory and the hardwood saplings that would otherwise have crowded out pines. Fire-resistant longleaf pines were scorched at their bases, but otherwise unharmed.

This system worked fine until twentieth-century fire-fighting policies cooled off the woods, allowing hardwoods to grow up and replace vast areas of pine forest. "It's been the Smokey Bear complex," says Ralph Costa, red-cockaded woodpecker recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). "Taking recurring natural fire out of the system has completely changed the table scraps of longleaf ecosystem we have left, in that they have serious hardwoodmidstory problems." The main red-cockaded problem is that the birds abandon forests choked with non-pine growth.

Learning the importance of fire to the survival of the endangered bird has been long in coming. Indeed, the means to red-cockaded survival are only now becoming clear. But the leaps in scientific understanding have initiated some remarkable successes in managing the woodpeckers. They also have provided conservationists with data needed to add suppleness to the Endangered Species Act and to assure private landowners that doing right by the endangered woodpeckers will not impinge on economic interests. As a result, experts say, a bird whose future until recently looked grim could be poised for a comeback.

Named for a tiny red streak on the side of the male bird's head, the cardinal-sized, black-and-white red-cockaded woodpecker probably evolved in southern old-growth longleaf pine forests. But the entire piney universe to which red-cockaded woodpeckers are finely calibrated—a belt of tall, widely spaced evergreens that covered 90 million acres of coastal plain from Chesapeake Bay to East Texas—has for the most part vanished. The cause is not just fire control but also heavy logging around the turn of the century. As the old-growth forest fell, so did red-cockaded woodpeckers, declining from an estimated 1.6 million family groups at the time Columbus sailed to about 4,500 groups (or roughly 12,000 individual birds) now. FWS listed the red-cockaded woodpecker as endangered in 1970.

The South still has millions of pines, but few pinelands suitable for red-cockadeds. Pines planted to produce pulpwood and paper have replaced primeval longleaf, and in these commercial forests, trees are cut decades before they can become useful to the woodpeckers. The birds prefer pecking cavities into the living pines of only two species, and the trees must be at least 80 years old, an age at which they become internally weakened by a fungus called red heart. On average, the birds spend six years making a cavity in a longleaf pine, two years in a loblolly.

Red-cockadeds live in family groups made up of parents, some adult male offspring, and, during breeding season, the newly fledged young of both sexes. Young males from former years help feed nestlings, defend territory and do other woodpecker work, such as cavity excavation. Young female red-cockadeds usually leave their parents' territory, sometimes joining other groups that have lost a breeding female.

According to Jeffrey Walters, a red-cockaded woodpecker researcher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, sticking close to home gives a young male a better chance of becoming a breeder himself. Each woodpecker family occupies several cavity trees within the group's territory, and a successful helper can inherit these cavity trees when his father dies. Or he may be able to take over another cluster when a neighboring, unrelated breeding male dies.

Because of the clear importance of old pines to red-cockaded survival, early efforts to rescue the birds focused almost entirely on setting aside large stands of pines, called recruitment stands. But red-cockadeds seemed disinclined to pioneer these stands, and the species declined steadily throughout the South during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The birds' reluctance "didn't make sense to anyone at the time," says Walters. But research soon revealed the source of the recalcitrance. In 1988, scientists drilled artificial nest cavities in trees that grew within 20 test patches of forest unoccupied by woodpeckers. By the next breeding season, red-cockadeds had moved into 18 of the test areas. In contrast, no birds moved into the control plots, which lacked artificial cavities. "The key is really the cavities," says Walters.

Suddenly, conservationists had a potent tool for helping the species, and this tool soon was put to use when, in September 1989, Hurricane Hugo's 115-mph winds flattened vast tracts of the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina. The forest was home to the nation's second-largest red-cockaded woodpecker population. "We lost 87 percent of the active cavity trees and 63 percent of the red-cockaded woodpeckers," says Craig Watson, a biologist at Francis Marion. After the storm, biologists found almost 700 of the area's 1,900 woodpeckers still alive, but only 200 undamaged cavity trees remained. Watson had a housing crisis on his hands.

Within a month, Forest Service crews were drilling cavities for the refugee birds. As of 1995, 1,400 of the cavities dotted the forest, and Francis Marion's 371 red-cockaded groups still ranked among the species' largest populations (Apalachicola National Forest in Florida has the largest, with 650 groups). "It's one of the big success stories for endangered species," says Watson.

Presently, red-cockaded woodpeckers are increasing in a number of southern pine forests, and artificial cavities have played a part in each case. But where there is a way to save woodpeckers, there is not always a will. Attacks on the Endangered Species Act in Congress, and specifically on protection for red-cockadeds, and lack of commitment to the bird's protection among land-management agencies may throw cold water on woodpecker recovery. "The biggest threat to this species today is more in a political nature than it is a biological nature," says North Carolina biologist J.H. Carter, III, whose research has revealed much of what is known about red-cockaded habitat needs. (He published his first report on the species 30 years ago, when he was 15.)

For example, federal lands play a crucial role in meeting the FWS plan to establish 300 to 500 groups of the birds at each of 15 sites across the Southeast. National forests will make up the bulk of territory for 12 of the recovery populations. Already, more than half of all red-cockaded woodpeckers are found in national forests, though only Apalachicola has more than 500 groups.

Despite the forests' importance, Forest Service guidelines for managing woodpecker habitat, released in June 1995, do not go far enough in protecting the woodpeckers, according to a consortium of conservation groups. Woodpecker researcher Fran James, of Florida State University, gives the new national-forest guidelines mixed marks. "They're a great improvement" over previous plans, she says, because woodpecker habitat will be managed in units of several family groups, and trees will be cut on longer rotations. But in a concession to timber interests, the service plans to allow more logging in red-cockaded woodpecker habitat than experts recommended. Another fault in the guidelines, says James, is that local forest managers are not required to pursue "a very vigorous prescribed burning regime."

The assault on woodpecker management also has been conducted in Congress. Early last year, Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) attempted to halt protection of redcockadeds at the Army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He dropped his effort when even the Pentagon opposed his goal. Later in 1995, 15 of Helms colleagues petitioned the Interior Department to remove the woodpecker (and two other troublesome birds) from the endangered-species list. The congressional petition, which is still pending, argued that the Endangered Species Act's "perverse incentives" discourage conservation "by imposing ruinous financial burdens on private landowners" who have protected wildlife on their property.

A new federal program suggests the weakness of that argument. This is Safe Harbor, a program that FWS launched last year to encourage voluntary improvements to privately owned red-cockaded woodpecker habitat in a six-county area of the North Carolina sandhills.

For example, Billy Clark, an attorney in Fayetteville, North Carolina, wants to manage his 2,000 acres to yield pine needles for the garden-mulch market. Under a 99-year Safe Harbor permit, Clark has agreed to maintain enough pine habitat, as determined by FWS biologists, to support the four groups of woodpeckers nesting on his land. These groups serve as his baseline birds. If more. woodpeckers move onto his land, Clark will not be responsible for protecting the newcomers under the Endangered Species Act, beyond giving biologists time to relocate any affected woodpeckers before he cuts pines.

"Although the Safe Harbor concept may not work for all species," says John Kostyack, the National Wildlife Federation's attorney for endangered-species issues, "it offers promise for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Under the program, the FWS protects current population levels on private lands and encourages private landowners to voluntarily increase those populations by eliminating any fear that ESA restrictions might result when new habitat is created."

Safe Harbor, says Carter, has helped to ameliorate property owners' fears of government control. "It's given us more tools to deal with private landowners," he says, "and has given them more reasons not to be scared to death of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Endangered Species Act." To date, 12 landowners responsible for 15,000 acres of private pineland have signed up with Safe Harbor.

Safe Harbor plans are being set up to help red-cockaded woodpeckers (and other endangered species) beyond the Carolina sandhills. "Landowners just love it," claimed Ralph Costa, the FWS woodpecker recovery coordinator, after meeting last fall with Louisiana pineland owners interested in joining a statewide Safe Harbor plan. "They say, 'This is all we needed. Just take away the onus of the government telling us what we can and cannot do with our land, and we'll give you habitat, we'll give you birds.'"

If Costa is right, someday this southern bird may at last be out of the woods, and at home in its pines.

Washington, D.C., journalist Michael Lipske last year won NWF's annual Trudy Farrand and John Strohm Magazine Writing Award for his article on blue crabs in the October-November 1995 issue.

NWF: Creating Plans To Save Rare Birds 
Saving endangered species is an NWF priority. In recent years, NWF's Southeastern Natural Resource Center has been active in efforts to develop effective management plans for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Meanwhile, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate, has joined the state Forestry Association in developing management plans that range from starting a Safe Harbor program like North Carolina's to creating woodpecker certificates that landowners who establish new red-cockaded families could sell, just as industries trade pollution credits.

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