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Woodpeckers Find a Safe Harbor in North Carolina's Sandhills
by Susan Miller
Photo Credit: USFWS
The North Carolina Sandhills (NC Sandhills) are home to one of the largest red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) populations in existence, despite decades of land use that diminished the region's longleaf pine forests—the preferred habitat of the endangered birds. The loss, fragmentation, and lack of management of longleaf pine habitat caused a steady decline in the number of red-cockaded woodpeckers in the NC Sandhills. Since many of the remaining birds occur on privately owned land, conservation of the dwindling population – one of 13 designated primary core recovery populations – has faced a unique challenge.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, NC landowners were concerned that the presence of red-cockaded woodpeckers would limit the economic use of their properties. Rather than be constrained by government regulations, many landowners harvested mature pine timber before red-cockaded woodpeckers – which live in large, family groups or clusters – could "infest" their land.
At the time, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protected threatened and endangered species found on private lands by prohibiting activities that might kill or injure individuals of a listed species, including significant habitat modifications or degradation that impairs breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior. With respect to the private landowner, the ESA sought to deter harmful activities through regulation and possible fines and imprisonment. While section 10 of the ESA provided a tool to accommodate economic development by authorizing take of listed species when it was incidental to otherwise lawful activities, it did not offer the private sector any incentive to proactively conserve listed species.
Photo credit: Susan Miller/USFWS
Recognizing that red-cockaded woodpecker groups on private lands could play a valuable role in recovering the NC Sandhills red-cockaded woodpecker population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) developed the first Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) in 1995. This first-of-its-kind program was designed to encourage voluntary conservation of red-cockaded woodpeckers on private land by offering landowners regulatory relief in exchange for protection and management of high-quality habitat on their properties. By limiting the responsibility of landowners and providing them with certainty about the future, the NC Sandhills SHA removed the fear that previously drove many to take actions such as clearcutting pines in order to prevent red-cockaded woodpeckers from taking up residence on their land.
Since the NC Sandhills SHA began, 120 landowners have enrolled approximately 62,659 acres (25,350 hectares) of private forests, golf courses, scout camps, residential communities, schools, town parks and horse farms. Across these land holdings, a variety of actions have improved red-cockaded woodpecker nesting and foraging habitat. Under the agreement, landowners agreed to plant longleaf pine trees; remove and control hardwood mid-story through prescribed burning, chemical application, or mechanical manipulation; and restore native grasses to promote insect production and soil stabilization. Since red-cockaded woodpeckers are the only woodpeckers in North America that excavate their nesting cavities in live trees – a process that can take more than a decade to complete – landowners have also installed artificial cavities to provide immediate shelter. Meanwhile, the preservation of snags (nearly dead trees) reduces competition with other woodpeckers for cavities, and the placement of restrictor plates prevents other woodpecker species from enlarging cavities. Landowners have also minimized their use of bird feeders and ornamental mid-story trees that attract nest competitors.
Photo credit: Susan Miller/USFWS
Over the last 20 years, these efforts have turned the tide for the NC Sanhills red-cockaded woodpecker population. The species prospects have greatly improved, and the population continues to grow and stabilize. While it may take several more years of active habitat management to undo the impact that decades of non-management had on the population, a recent survey documented 22 new red-cockaded woodpecker groups on enrolled properties.
The NC Sandhills SHA has enhanced the Service's ability to work directly with private landowners and build trusting relationships. As a result, several landowners have gone a step further and have added permanent protection of their lands and pine habitat by selling or donating conservation easements. Additionally, many enrolled landowners have been key in expanding the program by showing their friends and neighbors that the program works for them.
The success of the NC Sandhills SHA resulted in the development of 10 additional SHAs to benefit the red-cockaded woodpecker, with more than 400 landowners working to improve habitat conditions for the species on more than 2.3 million acres (930,780 ha) of open pine forest habitat from southeastern Virginia to east Texas. Meanwhile, 85 other plant and animals species benefit from 87 active SHAs developed to maintain and improve existing habitat, or recreate habitat and facilitate reintroduction for species that have been lost. Interest in these voluntary conservation agreements continues to increase across the country, with landowners continuing to enroll in existing regional or state-wide SHAs. With more than two-thirds of listed species habitat occurring on privately owned and managed land, the continued support and cooperation of private property owners is essential.
The NC Sandhills SHA demonstrates the benefits of investing time to cultivate relationships with private landowners. It also shows that all potential benefits of incentive programs are not necessarily achieved immediately. Agencies administering Safe Harbor permits must be willing and able to obligate the necessary resources to maintain these relationships in order to realize the long-term gains toward the ultimate goal of recovering threatened and endangered species.
Susan Miller, the lead red-cockaded woodpecker recovery biologist in the Service's North Carolina Sandhills Sub-office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-695-3323.
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