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Red-cockaded Woodpecker Experts Gather in Savannah


January 23, 2003

Tom MacKenzie, (404) 679-729

Every 10 years, the best and the brightest in the field of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCW) gather to share ideas. This year more than 300 experts from the private, state and federal sectors will meet in Savannah, Georgia, for a week of presentations, discussions, lessons learned, and best management practices.

"The red-cockaded woodpecker recovery program is one of the finest examples of Interior Secretary Norton's "4 Cs" - Consultation, Cooperation, Communication -- all in the service of Conservation," said Craig Manson, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "The status of red-cockaded woodpeckers and associated recovery efforts have improved significantly during the past decade. We fully expect this success story to continue and increase in momentum during this administration, and under the leadership of the individuals, agencies, and organizations represented at this conference."

Partnerships, private property, relationships with states, cooperation with the military, recovery support via funding initiatives, sound science, dedicated and seasoned professionals -- are all key aspects of the recovery program for this unique species.

"This group shows the best of what can be accomplished in endangered species conservation when dedicated individuals take advantage of, and make new opportunities to form meaningful partnerships," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The innovative techniques developed by these pros will chart the course for the next 10 years. . . .And if they prove as beneficial as the last 10 years' efforts, we will show that endangered species recovery will help the entire southeast longleaf pine ecosystem."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife compiles the information from the many presentations and papers offered at the conference into a book that, along with the recovery plan, becomes a strong foundation to provide signposts to guide recovery of this endangered bird for the next decade. With 15 major installations harboring red-cockaded woodpeckers and 538,600 acres of prime habitat, the military is a powerful ally in the recovery effort.

"Just 15 years ago, the thought of a round table discussion between regulators, the military, academia, and advocates was the stuff of nightmares," said Maj. Gen. David M. Mize, Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. "Now, all of us welcome the opportunity to gather at events such as this symposium to share stories of great achievements, partnerships, research and insights resulting, in many cases, from our coordinated efforts. The RCW community should be justifiably proud of the great progress that is being made. In the military, we are very interested in talking about exciting new initiatives that can benefit both military training bases and endangered species. Included in this category are programs to acquire buffer zones around bases that will ensure incompatible development to base activities does not occur, while also providing additional conservation lands to recover and sustain threatened and endangered species."

The red-cockaded woodpecker program is very well-coordinated with state wildlife agencies. To help recover the species, the Service coordinates statewide or regional conservation plans within the range of the bird in each state in cooperation with the respective state wildlife agencies in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas.

"The future of the RCW is looking brighter by the year, but this hasn=t come easily," said David Waller, Director, Wildlife Resources Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "Research, intensive management of populations and habitat, development of innovative management tools and policies, partnerships, and changing public attitudes have all contributed to the successful conservation of this species."

Additionally, we have draft statewide conservation plans in Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina. Numerous state properties harbor key populations, particularly in Oklahoma, North and South Carolina, and Florida. Our state partners in North Carolina -- the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and Florida -- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, have gone the extra mile and agreed to have selected key properties directly involved in downlisting and delisting the red-cockaded woodpecker. Many other state properties, particularly in South Carolina, will continue to have a critical role as we advance toward recovery. Roles may include serving as mitigation sites, donor populations, islands/corridors for dispersal and research sites.

The conference will also serve as the backdrop as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will officially approve and sign the newest revision to the red-cockaded woodpecker recovery plan.

This inch-and-a-half thick comprehensive plan incorporates the latest and best science available with volumes of data including: red-cockaded woodpecker population viability, habitat and monitoring, life history and ecology, sociobiology, ecosystem relationships, population and habitat monitoring, as well as management techniques and recovery strategies. The revision began in 1996.

"I am extremely proud to announce the approval of the revision to the red-cockaded woodpecker recovery plan at the conference," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We convened a large and diverse recovery team with17 experts to accomplish this difficult and challenging task which will guide our cooperative recovery efforts for years to come."

"Red-cockaded woodpecker conservation and recovery strategy are on track and in tune with our goals and initiatives," said red-cockaded woodpecker recovery coordinator Ralph Costa. "Most populations on federal, state and private lands have been stabilized or are increasing. Thanks to artificial cavities and translocation (moving birds - pairing birds), we have hundreds more new groups since our last symposium 10 years ago."

The primary causes for the decline of the species in the Southeast were:

  • clearing forests for agriculture and settlements
  • short rotation timber management
  • land use conversion

"We've taken what was a 92-million-acre ecosystem and reduced it to 3 million," said Costa. "We estimate there were 1 to 1.5 million red-cockaded woodpecker groups when Columbus hit the beach. Now we have less than 6,000 groups. The prime reason? The ecosystem has vanished."

Some of the key challenges to achieve recovery include funding issues and fire. The agencies, groups, and organizations involved in conservation and recovery just don't have enough money to fully implement everything they would like to do, so they move forward with saving birds and the long leaf pine ecosystem with whatever financial boost they can get. The other issue is fire. While controlled burns are needed to maintain or restore the habitat, prescribed burning remains a challenge and is getting more complex. Helping people understand that fire is a natural process and a critical natural resource conservation tool can be tough to sell. Air quality, smoke management issues, and proximity of structures makes replicating the natural process of periodic fires time consuming to plan and manage and costly to operate in an efficient fire manner.

Reporters and Editors: For more information, visit: For photographs, please visit the website:

Answers from Ralph Costa, Recovery Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

Can we remove the red-cockaded woodpecker from the endangered species list?

Recovery is a real possibility. We have the land base that we need and we know how to increase the species' population via translocation and artificial cavities -- we have no barriers. And we can't say that about all species.

What does endangered status give the red-cockaded woodpecker?

The woodpecker is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Federal agencies must consult on projects, and no one can "take" the species. Hopefully, in addition to the legal protection, it also gives the species and its ecosystem a high priority for funding.

How do recovery efforts for the red-cockaded woodpecker relate to southern pine forests, particularly longleaf pine ecosystem conservation and restoration?

The red-cockaded woodpecker is the best representative for the ecosystem - being its primary keystone species and distributed in 10 states, 12 ecoregions, on 54 federal properties, 45 state properties and dozens of private tracts.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a keystone species -- the best representative of the Southern pine ecosystem. Recovering them protects and restores the longleaf pine ecosystem. Where you have healthy red-cockaded woodpeckers, you have a healthy ecosystem. If you save the woodpeckers, you simultaneously take care of large blocks of forest. You've got to have old trees and fire. The cavities they build (or artificial ones we give them) are used by at least 27 other vertebrates. They are the gopher tortoise of the tree canopy. We have cavities that have been in trees for 40 years, they may change, hosting different critters over time, from other birds to raccoons. This isn=t even counting insects. There is even an aquatic life component in cavities that fill with water.

How does the military help save red-cockaded woodpeckers?

We have an excellent working relationship with all of the 15 military installations harboring red-cockaded woodpeckers. There are no issues of military readiness or preparedness being compromised due to efforts to recover the bird on military lands. Indeed, military installations are, in many cases, setting the standard for population growth rates and exemplary longleaf pine ecosystem restoration programs. In fact, we will see examples of these efforts on our Fort Stewart field trip.

What has changed in 10 years of recovery efforts since the last Symposium?

We have an organized and very successful conservation strategy for our private landowner partners harboring red-cockaded woodpeckers, and indeed those not harboring red-cockaded woodpeckers (i.e., safe harbor with a zero baseline). A decade ago we had zero private land acres, zero red-cockaded woodpecker groups, and zero landowners in any sort of a partnership with us. Today, we have more than 350,000 acres of private land, 510 red-cockaded woodpecker groups and 152 private landowners in red-cockaded woodpecker partnerships. These partnerships take the form of safe harbor agreements, habitat conservation plans, and memorandums of agreement.

This conference will highlight many of these partnerships and the tremendous success they are having at saving, and indeed growing, populations on private property. In fact, several private properties, primarily owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, will be directly involved in downlisting and delisting the red-cockaded woodpecker. It is important to note however, that all birds on private lands are playing a critical role at this point in helping us to achieve recovery. We are grateful for private contributions and look forward to many more private land success stories.

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