Supporting Status Change for Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Tall Timbers supports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed change in status of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The proposal has garnered a good bit of media coverage, so we wanted to share our thoughts on both the good reasons for the change, as well as the need to keep the woodpecker on the ESA as threatened for the decades needed to achieve recovery.

Understanding Endangered Species Act status

The status as endangered vs. threatened under the ESA is central to the proposed change. Endangered species are plants and animals that face an imminent threat of extinction. Threatened species receive generally the same level of protection as endangered species, and are defined as species that could be endangered in the near future.

Many biologists believed the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was heading toward extinction about 30 years ago. Now populations are improving throughout the bird’s range, increasing from about 10,000 individuals in the early 1980s to over 15,000 individuals today.

This trend away from an imminent threat of extinction is great news and fits with the proposed change in status, but it also doesn’t mean the many other important conditions needed to recover the species and remove it from the ESA have occurred.

A change in status from endangered to threatened may also provide a small amount of flexibility to develop new management tools for the woodpecker. Many current approaches were created with great caution and concern for ‘imminent threat of extinction’ and have very proscriptive language. The status change may provide opportunities to test alternative management tools to help expand and support woodpecker populations. For example, translocating nestling woodpeckers could help to alleviate inbreeding in small populations and be more efficient than current approaches based on translocated juveniles.

Maintaining ESA protection as threatened for several decades will still provide the larger conservation planning needed for landscape-scale recovery. It’s good to remember that ESA protections for the woodpecker have been helpful in avoiding placement of incompatible land uses such as pipelines, toll roads and new residential development in areas like the Red Hills region and Department of Defense properties with substantial woodpecker populations.

Recovering the ecosystem, not just keeping a species

A key goal of the ESA is to recover the ecosystems upon which threatened and endangered species depend, rather than just keeping a few around, collecting them in zoos, or as DNA samples.

Pine tree with artificial cavity insert circled in red.

For the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, this means managing pine forests for the old-growth conditions that once typified the longleaf pine ecosystem. One estimate places the original acreage of old-growth longleaf pine at more than 60 million acres. Today that remnant area is around 12,000 acres, or about 0.004% of the original extent. In human terms, that is akin to the world population shrinking down to just those currently living in the Red Hills region.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker needs old-growth conditions because it is the only woodpecker in North America that excavates its nest and roost cavities exclusively in living pine trees, old ones. A potential cavity tree needs to be 70-90 years old just to have the right conditions for excavation, but many select even older trees around 150-200 years of age.

The positive trend in recent years for the woodpecker is not from the sudden appearance of old-growth conditions. It’s thanks to the installation of artificial woodpecker cavities. A biologist with a chainsaw can install an artificial cavity in about 45 minutes in trees only 60-70 years old. Today, artificial cavities make up the majority of cavity trees available to woodpeckers on many sites. The subsidized housing has helped to keep woodpeckers on the landscape, but reestablishing old-growth conditions is ultimately needed for the woodpecker to survive on its own and be removed from the ESA.

Planning for old-growth and recovery

Tall Timbers is working with several state agencies to plan for achieving old-growth conditions on state forests, wildlife management areas, and parks. The work is in a very early stage with Tall Timbers gathering background information on previous programs and hosting a meeting in April 2022 to start the process rolling. Our hope is that this type of planning for old-growth can eventually serve as a model for bringing back old-growth conditions throughout the former range of the longleaf pine ecosystem.  Restoring old-growth conditions won’t happen quickly, but there are areas where they might be reached within 50 years.

This work furthers Tall Timbers’ larger goal of sustaining rare wildlife and biodiversity associated with fire-maintained ecosystems in the Southeast.

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