Feds: Relax protections for woodpecker endangered since 1970

Associated Press
FILE - In this July 30, 2019, file photo, a red-cockaded woodpecker looks to a biologist as it is released back into in a long leaf pine forest at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. A bird declared endangered in 1970 -- the red-cockaded woodpecker, which taps pine sap to protect babies from snakes and gets its sons to help care for the next clutch of nestlings -- has recovered enough to relax federal protection, officials said Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

The red-cockaded woodpecker, a bird declared endangered in 1970 and surviving today in the scattered longleaf pine forests that remain in 11 U.S. states, has recovered enough to relax federal protections on the species, officials said Friday. But wildlife advocates don't necessarily agree.

Ben Prater, southeastern director for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said nothing released to the public so far justifies the change. 

"I think the bottom line is we're still short of recovery goals and certainly have not seen threats be abated," he said.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told landowners in April there was a chance of entirely dropping all protections for the species, it is instead proposing to list the cardinal-sized woodpeckers as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Still, it is also requesting comment on whether to remove the bird from the list entirely.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made the announcement on Friday at Fort Benning, Georgia, one of 13 military installations working to conserve the species.

The bird's recovery from the brink of extinction is a great success story, but is not complete — the woodpeckers need continued protection, said Jeff Walters of Virginia Tech, co-author of a report to the government on the species' status. He said their survival if the "downlisting" goes through will depend on rules still to be written. 

The Trump administration changed Endangered Species Act rules to end automatic continued protection when a species is moved from endangered to threatened, he noted. Now a threatened species is only protected if special rules are written to describe such requirements. 

The government is proposing a rule that would protect current habitat, forbidding damage to trees with woodpecker holes, harassment of the birds during breeding season and the use of insecticides near clusters, according to the news release.

Walters said his report states flatly that the bird should not be dropped entirely from the lists. That "species status assessment" will be published with the proposal in the Federal Register, triggering a 60-day period for public comment, the federal news release said.

Bernhardt's and Perdue's visit came during a monthslong  push by President Donald Trump's Cabinet chiefs into battleground states, swing states and wobbling states where rival Joe Biden is making a strong play in the presidential race. Trump won Georgia by 5.1 percentage points in 2016, but some polls suggest a closer race this time, and it's one of several states where Biden is upping his campaign spending.

"Partnering for conservation has improved the condition of the red-cockaded woodpecker. It also allows us to take this important downlisting step," Bernhardt said in a news release.

The federal government spent $408 million on the species from 1998 to 2016, making it one of the most expensive on the endangered list.

Once found from New Jersey to Florida, west to Texas and north to Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, red-cockaded woodpeckers now live only in coastal states from southern Virginia to eastern Texas, and parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma. The birds get their name from red feathers along the sides of adult males' black caps. 

The species is the only North American woodpecker that carves living quarters inside live trees, which takes years. And because the longleaf pines it favors were logged out and replaced with faster-growing pines, the birds' range nearly disappeared as the forests shrank from 90 million acres to about 3 million (36.4 million hectares to 1.2 million). Fire suppression in the remaining forests let other trees grow too close for the birds' comfort. 

By the late 1970s, there were only 1,470 clusters -- breeding pairs and young males which live nearby and help their parents care for nestlings. Fish and Wildlife experts now estimate there are nearly 7,800 clusters.

Scientists credit the recovery to two programs developed after 1989's Hurricane Hugo destroyed 87 percent of the trees where red-cockaded woodpeckers lived in South Carolina's Francis Marion National Forest. One installs prefabricated woodpecker houses that are set flush into tall pines, or drills cavities for the birds. Another moves young woodpeckers into areas where only a few adults live. 

The government also credited safe harbor agreements, in which landowners can manage their land with minimal federal oversight if they agree to help a protected animal on it.

Other programs have added more than 1.3 million acres (526,000 hectares) of new longleaf pine stands in the past 10 years, the news release said. The total is now 4.7 million acres (1.9 million hectares), according to the National Resource Conservation Service. 

But those new stands won't help the birds for decades, Walters said.

"The trees have to be 60 years old before they're good to forage on and 100 years to be good for cavities," he said. 

The downlisting proposal "is a testament that military and conservation goals are compatible," said Col. Matthew Scalia, garrison commander at Fort Benning, in a statement. 

Other military installations working to bring back the bird include Fort Bragg, which the late Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina tried to get exempted from the Endangered Species Act because protecting woodpeckers interfered with military training.


McConnaughey reported from New Orleans. Ellen Knickmeyer contributed from Oklahoma City.