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Red Hills Ecological Consortium Receives $97,500 Grant


October 3, 2003

Mike Hobbs, FWS, 706-613-9493 ext. 36
Stan Simpkins, FWS, 850-769-0552 ext. 234
Kitty Esco, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 478-994-1438
Rose Rodriguez, Tall Timbers Research Station, 850-893-4153 ext. 258

Efforts Assist Recovery of Endangered Woodpecker on Private Lands

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will award a $97,500 grant to state and private conservation agencies working to assist the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered woodpecker once common to much of the southeastern United States. The Red Hills Ecological Consortium will focus recovery efforts in Thomas and Grady counties in Georgia as well as in Leon County, Florida.

Consortium members include the Tall Timbers Research Station, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Resources Division, The Nature Conservancy, the Turner Endangered Species Fund and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Source for the funding is the Private Stewardship Program recently initiated by President George W. Bush.

"This award helps continue a recovery effort that's been underway for several years now," states Steve Parris, lead biologist for the USFWS Ecological Services office in Columbus, Georgia. "It's a positive. We're excited about the future possibilities."

About the size of a common cardinal, red-cockaded woodpeckers are seven inches long and feed mostly on small insects. The adult male possesses under its cap of black feathers a small, difficult to see “cockade" or red feather patch on each side of its head.

Territorial and non-migratory, red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups that typically include up to four adult helpers. Together these helpers support one breeding pair in raising young and defending a territory. Preferring older, mature pine trees for nesting and roosting, each family’s nesting cavity may take up to three years to complete, but will be used for many years. A continuing problem has been locating trees such as mature, living longleaf pine trees for roosting and nesting.

Longleaf pine forests are a minuscule fraction of their former range. Following three centuries of converting forests to fields, scattered red-cockaded woodpecker populations have found it difficult to locate suitable trees for nesting cavities. No longer seen in four southeastern states where they formerly occurred and facing extinction, red-cockaded woodpeckers were listed as endangered in 1970, three years before passage of the Endangered Species Act.

"Fortunately, due to timing and historic circumstance, the Georgia-Florida Red Hills region has become an inadvertent safe-haven for red-cockaded clusters,” states Jim Cox, research biologist at the private, nonprofit Tall Timbers Research Station. "If you look around the Southeast, some of the country's best examples of old-growth longleaf pine forests occur on the private lands in this area."

Cox refers to events going back two centuries in the Red Hills region. In the early 1800’s, settlers cleared away forests to create fields for agricultural use. Fortunately, large tracts of forests were spared including a few stands of longleaf pine trees. Some of these individual longleaf pines still stand and are well over 400 years old today.

The Civil War eliminated slave-based agriculture, effectively reducing pressures to further clear remaining tracts of forests. Additional protection came during the latter 19th-century when wealthy industrialists purchased forests along with farmland to create private hunting estates.

Landowners still maintain these forests on private property, and it appears that preserving old-growth stands along with allowing second-growth pine forests to cover unused fields have benefited the woodpeckers. Biologists say that the Red Hills region is now home to the largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers on private lands and could play a vital role in the long-term recovery of red-cockaded woodpeckers across the southeastern United States.

Todd Engstrom, formerly with Tall Timbers and now with the Georgia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy has worked with red-cockaded woodpeckers for 25 years in the Red Hills region. With 180 woodpecker groups spread among 27 different landowners, he believes that using a portion of the funds to work with landowners is vital. "We very much want to cultivate positive relationships with private landowners,” Engstrom said. “This grant allows us to have one person dedicated to working with them."

Restoration efforts include resurveying local populations, using local populations to enhance other areas in Georgia and providing incentives for landowners who manage their forests for woodpeckers. Engstrom states, "We want to form a cooperative composed of landowners who have signed Safe Harbor agreements."

Safe Harbor Agreements are an integral part of Georgia's statewide plan for red-cockaded woodpeckers, providing assurances that private landowners may manage woodpecker habitat without incurring additional restrictions under the Endangered Species Act. These agreements are voluntary and administered through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“The Safe Harbor Program rewards landowners for good management and limits legal restrictions concerning endangered species,” said Phil Spivey, DNR wildlife biologist and Safe Harbor Agreement coordinator. “The program has already secured management agreements on over 100,000 acres of land and created many new red-cockaded woodpecker groups in Georgia.”

While efforts are focused on the red-cockaded woodpeckers, consortium members point out that dozens of rare plants and animals will also benefit by protecting the longleaf pine forests found in the Red Hills of Georgia and Florida. For more information on Safe Harbor Agreements in Georgia, landowners can call the Georgia DNR -- Wildlife Resources Division at 770 761-3035. In Florida, landowners interested in Safe Harbor Agreements may call the USFWS Panama City Ecological Services office at 850-769-0552, extension 234.

Further information can be found at:

Tall Timbers Research Station
Georgia Department of Natural Resources
USFWS Red-cockaded Woodpecker Recovery
USFWS Georgia Ecological Services Office

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