Conservation vs. The Public: The Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Endemic to the US, red cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) were once common throughout the south-eastern United States, but numbers rapidly fell following European settlement and subsequent habitat loss. Unlike most woodpecker species, the red cockaded woodpecker nests exclusively in living trees. Cavities are excavated for nesting, which can take up to 3 years, with most new colonisation occurring through reoccupation of old, abandoned sites, and competition for nesting cavities high.

Problems arouse between conservationists and landowners as a result of terms in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA states that ‘taking’ of protected species includes intentional or unintentional acts that harms or harasses that species, and can result in criminal prosecution. This means that any harm to a red cockaded woodpecker that occurs on a persons private property can be punished. Landowners are prevented from harvesting not only trees in which the woodpeckers reside, but surrounding trees, unable to change any of the surrounding habitat, and required to pay tax on the land’s previous value. As a result, preemptive habitat destruction began to occur in areas suited to red cockaded woodpeckers. Landowners harvested trees at younger stages, planted shortleaf pine over longleaf, and let understories grow.

The Red Cockaded Woodpecker, Rolf Nussbaum

The changes did not go unnoticed by conservationists. Following a surge of conservation laws in the 1970’s, alterations to reduce public resentment whist still protecting the environment have been a high priority. Today, plans such as ‘safe harbour’ and ‘no surprises’ policies allow landowners to set use their land as they wish with no repercussions if they set aside some areas for threatened species. The public is encouraged to involve themselves in ecological issues, and negative impacts of conservation investigated before conservation plans are drawn up. Although still threatened, red cockaded woodpeckers are today considered only ‘vulnerable’ by researchers, due to conservation efforts.


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