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Red-cockaded woodpecker flying from its nest.
Information icon Red-cockaded woodpecker. Photo by Martjan Lammertink, U.S. Forest Service.

Service, states, celebrate 20th anniversary of the safe harbor program offering voluntary land management agreements with private landowners

More than 400 private landowners across nine states are voluntarily managing their forests through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Safe Harbor Program to benefit the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.  The eight State agencies administering the program to landowners received special recognition this week at the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association Fish and Wildlife Agencies meeting in Asheville, North Carolina.

“Private landowners have voluntarily enrolled almost 2.5 million acres in the Safe Harbor Program benefitting 835 groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers,” said Leopoldo Miranda, Assistant Regional Director of Ecological Services in the Southeast Region. “We would like to thank our eight state conservation agency partners that are providing a vital service by enrolling these very important private landowners in the program and for red-cockaded woodpecker conservation.”

The Service started the Safe Harbor Program at the Pinehurst Resort in the North Carolina Sandhills in 1995.  Private landowners in the Sandhills already had been managing their longleaf pine forests for a variety of uses that also benefitted and could increase red-cockaded woodpeckers.  However, many landowners worried about how additional land use restrictions would reduce timber or other land use income, and they were compelled to stop beneficial management.  The creation of the Safe Harbor Program provides an incentive for landowners to continue voluntary management efforts because they are assured there will be no additional land use restrictions under the Endangered Species Act if red-cockaded woodpeckers increase on their property.

“The Safe Harbor Program was the first to protect landowners who were improving habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker from the liability of creating more woodpeckers on their property,” said Julian Johnson, a landowner in the North Carolina Sandhills.

Word of the Safe Harbor Program’s success with red-cockaded woodpecker conservation quickly spread from the North Carolina Sandhills to other states.  Landowners   voluntarily managing their land to help woodpeckers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia are able to enroll in the program through their state natural resource agency or another conservation agency.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the program to landowners in the North Carolina Sandhills and Mississippi.

Landowners interested in red-cockaded woodpecker conservation through the Safe Harbor Program may contact the Service’s Red-cockaded Woodpecker Coordinator Will McDearman for information about the program in their state   His e-mail is, telephone:  601-321-1124.

“We administer the program because of its importance to our landowners and the red-cockaded woodpecker; but, it also is beneficial to a wide variety of native wildlife and plants as well.” said Caroline Causey, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Safe Harbor Program biologist. “Landowners agree to provide management that can include prescribed low-intensity fire, thinning dense forest stands, and controlling fire-intolerant hardwoods to maintain and restore the open pine forest.”

Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in distinct social groups. Each group usually consists of a breeding male and female and one or more non-breeding helpers with a cluster of cavity trees. Each bird has its own cavity, excavated in living pines, and the group forages mostly for invertebrates on the bark of pines in their territory around their cavity tree cluster.  The number of active red-cockaded woodpecker clusters represents a baseline responsibility when a landowner enrolls in the Program.  Any additional red-cockaded woodpecker clusters as a result of voluntary management are considered above-baseline.  As authorized by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit under the Endangered Species Act, a landowner enrolled in the Safe Harbor Program can manage the forest or property for an above-baseline woodpecker cluster in any lawful manner, even if it harms or injures the woodpecker group.  There are 160 above-baseline woodpecker groups now on private lands enrolled in the Safe Harbor Program.

“Only a couple of landowners have ever used their federal permit authority, and only to take two above-baseline woodpecker groups”, said Will McDearman, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s red-cockaded woodpecker recovery coordinator.

The original success of the first red-cockaded woodpecker Safe Harbor Program in the North Carolina Sandills also led the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a national program.  Other endangered or threatened wildlife helped by Safe Harbor Agreements include the Utah prairie dog, Florida scrub jay, Lahontan cutthroat trout, Houston toad, and Karner blue butterfly.  Safe Harbor agreements with private landowners now benefit more than 100 federally listed species on 5.2 million acres in 26 states.

Public invited to Family Field Day celebration

To celebrate the Safe Harbor Program’s 20th Anniversary, a family field day will be held Saturday, November 7, in the North Carolina Sandhills. The event is open to the public from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Walthour-Moss Foundation property, one mile from Southern Pines, North Carolina, and north of Aiken Road.

Hosted by the Foundation, the North Carolina Sandhills Conservation Partnership, and the Service, the family field day features demonstrations and information about longleaf pine ecology, red-cockaded woodpecker biology, and the Safe Harbor program. Children can enjoy a scavenger hunt.  For more information about the family field day, please contact Caroline George at 919-812-2954, or


Will McDearman, USFWS

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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