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North Florida's Red Cockaded Woodpecker may keep protections, but lose its endangered status

This mother woodpecker, seen perched high on the outside of a tree, her head looking into a hole.
Rob Diaz de Villegas
WFSU Ecology Blog
A female woodpecker checks on her chicks after the babies were put back in the nest following a banding by conservationists

Biologists were dealt a crushing blow last year—an endangered woodpecker, native to the Southeast U.S. was declared extinct. Now some are declaring victory for another endangered woodpecker that makes its home in North Florida and South Georgia, but others argue the declaration of victory for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is premature.

After crossing a ditch on a bridge of small logs, Brian Camposano wades through clusters of Saw Palmetto. These waist-high palm trees grow under the canopy of a pine forest, and right now, Camposano is surrounded by slash pines stretching skyward.

“This is cluster number 64, it's one of the clusters of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers here in Tate’s Hell State Forest," he says, pointing to white bands painted on several nearby trees.

Each of these trees has an artificial nesting cavity more than 20 feet off the ground. For a Red-cockaded Woodpecker to make its own cavity, it needs a mature Pine with soft heartwood.

“There's no way to accelerate a tree's age, so if I need a 60-year-old Longleaf Pine tree to have heart rot in the middle of it so they can start excavating a cavity, I can't accelerate that timeline. So the only thing I can do is try to cut an insert box into a tree.”

Due to extensive logging, trees that old are in short supply in the Southeast—including here, in Tate’s Hell Forest.

Artificial nesting cavities have helped the bird rebound from fewer than 2,000 clusters in the 1970s to almost 8,000 today.

Two years ago, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service proposed downlisting the bird from Endangered to Threatened. The proposal alarmed environmentalists like Ramona McGee, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Red-cockaded Woodpeckers remain substantially threatened by habitat loss like so many species here in the Southeast," she says.

"That is now being compounded from threats of climate change, including severe storm events, rising temperatures.”

Under the original plan, downlisting would have meant removing some of the protections that have been credited with helping the species rebound. Now, the FWS has revised the proposal to keep many of the bird’s current protections in place, even as a Threatened species. But Camposano says the removal of some protections is not necessarily a bad thing for the people like him who are carrying out the land management and conservation activities.

“We don't see a real change in how we're going to do anything because we've been managing the way we've been managing for a long time now. It has benefited The RCW as we've grown all of our populations over time, and we're at a place now where we're happy with our progress. You know, obviously, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is happy with the progress overall throughout the range and it might be time to take that next step to downlist them to threatened.”

Campasano believes reducing restrictions could give land managers and biologists more ability to make decisions that could benefit Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. For instance, current rules prohibit any incidental harm or loss of life from management activities. If a nesting cavity needed relocating, Campasaso says, he would currently have to jump through hoops to do so.

One exception to that would be if nesting trees were damaged by a hurricane. Half of all RCW populations are considered to be at risk from major hurricanes, including those in Florida.
“If Hurricane Michael had shifted east… you know, going into the 20 to 25-mile range, I mean, we could have had a major loss on this part of the forest," he says.

2018’s Hurricane Michael slammed into the panhandle doing serious damage not only to properties but delicate ecosystems. Before the storm, one RCW group in the Apalachicola National Forest had a cluster with 20 cavity trees, but after Michael, only two of those trees were still standing.

Tate’s Hell is located along Apalachicola Bay, which puts its pinelands at risk from sea-level rise and strong storms that have become increasingly common. With a lack of mature trees and an increasingly hostile climate, Ramona McGee believes any kind of downlisting would be premature.

“Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are in an interesting category because they depend on these 60, 70, 80-year-old trees. So we need to be planting now. We're really 30 years behind in] planting these trees for these Red-cockaded Woodpeckers to migrate into eventually with warming temperatures… That isn’t the case right now.”

Woodpeckers in Tate’s Hell and the adjacent Apalachicola National Forest form the largest, most secure population in the bird’s range. But, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has found that most of the populations living elsewhere are far more vulnerable to major catastrophes.

The Service is taking comments on the new changes through March 7.