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A spotted owl by any other name: efforts are stepped up for endangered Southeast woodpeckers.

What has a red head, lives in oldgrowth forests in the Southeast and is closer to extinction than the much-publicized spotted owl? If you guessed the red-cockaded woodpecker, you are a rare bird yourself! Indeed, while the controversy over logging spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest is well known, a quieter storm is brewing in southeastern states, where the red-cockaded woodpecker is in danger of being wiped out after decades of intensive forestry. Like the spotted owl, red-cockaded woodpeckers also need intact old-growth - in this case, longleaf pine forests.

A longleaf pine stand looks much like an open meadow with thick knee-deep grass interspersed with tress, where you can see for a quarter of a mile or more. Here red-cockaded woodpeckers, along with wild turkeys, fox squirrels and others animals, forage in the open understory between the trees.

To save the woodpecker, environmentalists want to preserve the ramaining longleaf-grashed forest, which thrived in colonial times on the coastal plain from Virginia to Texas. Once cut for ship masts and other wood products, today only 1.8 million acres of the original 192 million acres of longleaf remain. In recent decades, foresters have replaced longleaf with other species, primarily loblolly and slash pine, which grow quickly to maturity and are ideal for pulpwood production. But longleaf can also be a profitable timber species, actually outgrowing other Southern pines on some sites.

"The longleaf forest is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States," says Jane Lareau of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (SCCCL). "To save the woodpecker, we need to save where it lives." The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has been replanting longleaf stands in the Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston, South Carolina and, together with SCCCL, conducting workshops on managing longleaf for members of the Cooper River Wildlife Corridor Project. The project, which began in 1990, includes about 100,000 acres of private and public lands adjacent to the national forest. Last spring, members of the project agreed to manage their properties with longleaf in mind.

Some landowners, however, are hesitant to grow longleaf stands because they fear the trees would indeed attract red-cockaded woodpeckers, and thus subject them to federal regulations prohibiting them from cutting their timber in the birds' immediate foraging area. "We don't want the red-cockaded woodpecker to be the spotted owl of the Southeast," says Lori Duncan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), referring to timber harvest restrictions in the Northwest to protect the spotted owl.

But USFWS's s Ralph Costa calls landowners' fears about suddenly attracting endangered woodpeckers "largely unfounded...Planting additional longleaf would not expand woodpecker habitat anytime in the near future; it will take decades for recently-planted stands to grow large enough for woodpeckers to nest there," he explains. "The woodpeckers are rapidly diminishing in number, and they don't aggressively invade new areas. Instead, they inherit habitat, which is currently disappearing. So planting longleaf is really a long-term project."

In the meantime, preserving the woodpeckers' remaining longleaf habitat - which is rapidly being chopped up for development - is urgent. The only way to save the woodpeckers, Costa says, is to prevent destruction of old-growth stands until the birds can be relocated. He notes that the estimated 8,000 to 12,000 surviving woodpeckers are becoming isolated into islands of habitat, mostly on private land. As a consequence, the birds may eventually die out - unless they are relocated to larger tracts in national forests and other protected public lands where they can thrive.

Costa has proposed a "holding action" to try to head off the birds' extinction, using South Carolina as a test site for bird relocations. If the relocations work there, they would later be conducted in other states. Participating landowners would have their property surveyed by state wildlife officials to determine the number of woodpeckers living there. Juvenile offspring would then be trapped for relocation. A landowner would receive credit for each bird relocated. After accumulating enough credits, the landowner could harvest trees, including woodpecker habitat. "The woodpeckers are disappearing so rapidly on private lands." says Costa, "that this is the likeliest way to save the birds' genetic material until their populations. can be expanded."

Some environmentalists are wary of such proposals. "We shouldn't give up on private land as woodpecker habitat," says SCCCL's Dana Beach. "We need an aggressive program to provide economic incentives and technical and educational assistance for landowners to grow longleaf." She and other activists point to the success of Leon Neel of Thomasville, Georgia, who manages more than 100,000 acres of longleaf. Over the past few decades, he has taken millions of board feet of timber off the land, while simultaneously watching red-cockaded woodpeckers grow in number. "The trick is to use selective harvesting methods - and not remove the whole forest at once," says Jane Lareau. Supplementing such efforts, the USFWS has written a new manual, Red-cockaded Woodpecker Procedures Manual for Private Lands.

However, Bob Scott of the South Carolina Forestry Association, feels that financial incentives would "discriminate" against landowners wanting to grow trees other than longleaf. Faced with a growing and powerful private property rights movement, regulators worry about legal challenges to woodpecker protection efforts.

But should the initiatives stand - the new manual, education, the proposed credit system, and perhaps financial incentives - landowners might well play a key role in helping to restore both woodpecker habitat and the unique once-vast longleaf ecosystem to the Southeastern coastal plains. Contact: SCCCL, P.O. Box 1765, Charleston, SC 29402/(803) 723-8035; USFWS, P.O. Box 788, McClellanville, SC 29458/(803)887-3248.
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Author:Tibbetts, John
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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