For a Rare Woodpecker in the Longleaf Pine Forest, It's a Hard-Knock Life

Conservationists have worked hard to help the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker recover, but say there’s still lots more to do. The government seems to disagree.

A red-cockaded woodpecker

Credit: Martjan_Lammertink/USFS

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael swept up the west coast of Florida, shredding its way through the longleaf pine stands of Apalachicola National Forest. Trees crashed to the earth, bringing with them approximately 1,400 nests of the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in a potentially catastrophic blow to the species’ largest population.

U.S. Forest Service employees and partners from across the region jumped into action building nesting cavities that would have taken the woodpeckers years to excavate. By Thanksgiving, almost 700 of these artificial cavities had been installed in the forest, helping avert any negligible decline in the population of the small black-and-white birds.

Despite the persistence of red-cockaded woodpeckers in Apalachicola National Forest, the species is not yet out of the woods. These iconic and highly social birds, which live in family groups comprised of a breeding pair and up to four of their male offspring, have perched on the Endangered Species List for the past 50 years. And for the last five, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been reviewing their status, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The results look good. Good enough, in some pockets of the population, that the federal government is contemplating downgrading or removing the species from the list. It’s a move some fear is premature, jeopardizing the birds’ recovery.

Longleaf pine and saw palmetto in the Apalachicola National Forest
Credit: Ed Fulton via Flickr

“This is a species that is dependent on management to persist on the landscape,” says John Dunlap, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist for the Apalachicola forest. He notes that the forest is currently home to 600 active family groups—100 more than the recovery goal for this population. But conservation measures, including interventions like the artificial cavities his team built in the hurricane’s wake, have been key to their success.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers once thrived throughout the South’s longleaf pine forests that stretched from Virginia to Texas. The groups spread out through their wooded homes, with each family occupying a cluster of cavity trees, and each family member occupying its own tree cavity for roosting. (The species is the only type of woodpecker that excavates a cavity in living pines, versus dead trees.) But intensive logging and the Forest Service’s former practice of suppressing any and all wildfires caused a sharp decline in their habitat and numbers. Only 3,500 family groups, or 0.2 percent of the historic population, remained when the woodpeckers joined the Endangered Species List in the 1970s. In the 1980s, FWS, tasked with overseeing endangered species, launched a detailed recovery plan that started stabilizing the population and allowed it to grow.

“The woodpecker’s recovery has been highly successful,” says Will McDearman, who coordinates the species recovery plan for FWS. Altogether, he estimates that the birds occupy about 8,300 active territories across federal, state, and private lands.

Much of the success results from two conservation techniques: Prescribed burns and artificial cavities. Prescribed burns—fires set under carefully controlled conditions, usually in the spring and fall outside the wildfire season window—help maintain a vibrant longleaf pine ecosystem by clearing underbrush and removing trees competing for sunlight. Artificial cavities—holes cut into a tree with a chainsaw and fitted with prefabricated roosting quarters—provide the red-cockaded woodpeckers homes in young longleaf pines they wouldn’t naturally be able to excavate. (The birds build their usual cavities in older pines that tend to have softer, partially rotted heartwood; even then, they need up to three years to excavate these sites.) “In short, if you build it they will come,” McDearman says.

USFWS firefighters at Piedmont NWR conducting a prescribed fire to help reduce the risk of wildfire and improve habitat, including the home of the red-cockaded woodpecker.
Credit: Josh O'Connor-USFWS

Still, while conservation measures like these can boost individual populations, challenges loom for the species at large. There are hot spots for the birds on military bases, forest service land, or other governmentally held lands, but they are genetically isolated from one another. Meanwhile, other populations continue to lag. Which begs the question, are red-cockaded woodpeckers ready for delisting or downlisting? Experts say no.

Reducing the status of red-cockaded woodpeckers from “endangered” to “threatened” (which could provide fewer protections under the ESA) requires 20 of its populations to meet the minimum criteria for downlisting. These criteria involve stipulations about stability, population size, and locale. According to McDearman, just 15 populations may meet the criteria, falling short of the requirement for downlisting. Lawyers at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) emphasize that the agency’s own data shows that recovery targets have not been achieved.

“First and foremost, the RCW has not reached recovery yet,” says Ramona McGee, a staff attorney with SELC. “All the populations are highly dependent on management actions. When you’re hearing the stories and seeing coverage that they’re recovering, it’s not the full story. They still need some help getting along the finish line.”

McGee and others fear that policy decisions are steering endangered species classifications instead of the best available science. According to documents received through the Freedom of Information Act, the southeast region of FWS adopted a directive dubbed the “Wildly Important Goal” that established a quota to minimize the size of the Endangered Species List. Specifically, the agency set out to downgrade, delist, or otherwise prevent 30 species each year from receiving protections under the ESA. The missive mirrors other actions taken by the Trump administration to weaken wildlife protections.

A red-cockaded woodpecker eating a bug
Credit: USFWS

At particular risk are the 12 percent of the red-cockaded woodpecker population that reside on private lands in the Southeast, and are managed by the Safe Harbor Program. Currently, such an incentive program is in place in North Carolina and Georgia to help landowners meet their legal obligations to protect the birds under the ESA. The program encourages people to make voluntary improvements to their land that benefit red-cockaded woodpeckers without creating any additional land-use restrictions should the bird population swell. But if the birds lose their endangered status, the obligations for protection and funds may disappear for such a program.

Georgia, as well as other states, rely on federal dollars for ongoing red-cockaded woodpecker conservation programs, such as safe harbor agreements. “These efforts are funded primarily through federal sources,” said Georgia Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Rick Lavender, in an email. “The Wildlife Resources Division is committed to managing and monitoring red-cockaded woodpeckers as resources allow.”

All in all, the status of red-cockaded woodpeckers has far-reaching consequences. More than 30 already threatened and endangered species call the longleaf pine ecosystem home. And a host of other species who lack protections also benefit indirectly from the habitat conservation measures mandated by the woodpecker’s current status. It’s a dangerous precedent to prematurely declare victory and then have that species dwindle away again, says SELC’s McGee. When we have spent decades trying to recover a species, why would we declare an end to marathon right before crossing the finish line? Hopefully, the answer is we won’t.

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