Environment

Wildlife Officials Say Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers Don’t Need ‘Endangered’ Status, But Some Disagree

A red-cockaded woodpecker looks to a biologist as it is released back into a longleaf pine forest. The federal government says the woodpeckers, which live in the longleaf pine forests of South Georgia and other Southern states, have now made enough of a comeback that they don’t need the endangered status anymore. The proposed downlisting has been met with some concern.
A red-cockaded woodpecker looks to a biologist as it is released back into a longleaf pine forest. The federal government says the woodpeckers, which live in the longleaf pine forests of South Georgia and other Southern states, have now made enough of a comeback that they don’t need the endangered status anymore. The proposed downlisting has been met with some concern.
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
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Red-cockaded woodpeckers, considered endangered since before the Endangered Species Act was passed, are ready to be reclassified as threatened, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The deadline for comments on the proposal is Monday.

The little black and white birds, which live in the longleaf pine forests of South Georgia and other Southern states, have been protected for 50 years. Their decline was due to loss of habitat, as the South’s old longleaf pine trees were cut for timber and the land was changed for other uses.

The federal government says the woodpeckers have now made enough of a comeback that they don’t need the endangered status anymore.

Trump administration officials traveled to Georgia in late September, before the general election, to make the announcement.

“We have so much to celebrate,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said at an event at Fort Benning. “We are celebrating not just an incredible conservation success and legacy, but also the spectacular way in which it was achieved.”

A healthy longleaf pine forest, like this one in Fort Stewart, has an open, park-like feel. Areas like these are where the woodpeckers make their homes. (Stephen B. Morton for WABE)
A healthy longleaf pine forest, like this one in Fort Stewart, has an open, park-like feel. Areas like these are where the woodpeckers make their homes. (Stephen B. Morton for WABE)

Conservation agencies have worked with the military and with private landowners to restore woodpecker habitat by using controlled burns, since the forests they live in evolved with fire; by creating artificial cavities for the birds to nest in because it can take them years to do it on their own; and by catching the birds and releasing them in other places, since their populations are now more scattered and isolated than they once were.

At the September event, Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, said their conservation program alone costs a million dollars a year.

The efforts have worked.

Across the Southeast, some populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers are now in good shape.

But many populations are less resilient, and the birds still face threats, such as from hurricanes and climate change. Experts say red-cockaded woodpeckers are “conservation reliant.” If people stopped prescribed burning, building cavities and moving birds, the number of woodpeckers would drop again.

The service isn’t proposing to stop conservation work on the birds. Officials say red-cockaded woodpeckers would still have the same level of protection, though some policies and administrative procedures would be different.

Still, the proposed downlisting has been met with some concern.

“They are dependent on management, and will be dependent on certain kinds of management, specifically artificial cavities, for a decade or two longer in some places. And they’ll always be dependent on prescribed fire,” Jeff Walters, a conservation biologist at Virginia Tech who studies red-cockaded woodpeckers, said.

Walters is on the team taking stock of the current state of red-cockaded woodpecker populations for the service. He said, according to their assessment, the species is doing better than it was 20 years ago, and much better than 30 years ago, when people were worried the woodpeckers might go extinct.

“You can’t take away the management, or you’ll be right back where you started from,” he said. “So the trick is to make sure that they continue to get the management that they need.”

That question would have been less up in the air if not for a Trump administration change to the Endangered Species Act. While threatened species used to automatically get the same protections as endangered species, that’s no longer the case. The change was intended to allow for more transparency, according to the administration.

Researchers have helped the red-cockaded woodpecker thrive by, for example, installing cavities for the birds to live in. (Stephen B. Morton for WABE)
Researchers have helped the red-cockaded woodpecker thrive by, for example, installing cavities for the birds to live in. While their numbers are improving, some don’t feel the birds should be reclassified yet from endangered to threatened status. (Stephen B. Morton for WABE)

For red-cockaded woodpeckers, the service wrote a special rule, outlining specific prohibitions and exceptions. It allows for more flexibility to be more accommodating around activities that only have minor effects on the birds or may actually help them in the long run, according to the service, while still focusing on bigger threats to the species.

But Walters said the rule could leave open the possibility that some agencies and landowners might do less to help the birds.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, is what people are concerned about,” he said.

Environmental groups are also pushing back on the proposal, saying that, according to the government’s own recovery plan for the bird, the woodpeckers have not reached the numbers needed for downlisting them to threatened status.

“The best available science does not demonstrate that the species has sufficiently recovered, nor does it demonstrate that the [red-cockaded woodpecker] no longer faces significant threats to its survival,” Ben Prater, Southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said at a virtual public hearing last week.

The service says that plan is a guidance document, and what it lays out isn’t required.

“We determined that the species is no longer in danger of extinction; however, the red-cockaded woodpecker still faces a variety of threats,” Kristi Young, deputy manager for the service’s division of conservation and classification in the Southeast said at the hearing.

“Conditions have definitely improved for the species.”

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