Federal proposal would remove key protections for endangered red-cockaded woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpeckers call mature pine forests home, and longleaf pines are most commonly preferred. 

In another shot at endangered species protections, this month the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed a downlisting from endangered status that Attorney Ramona McGee says could reverse decades of hard work spent preserving the iconic red-cockaded woodpecker.

“This move is poised to set a dangerous precedent of claiming victory too early and without scientific support, leaving this species without the management it critically needs to succeed,” says McGee.

The proposed rule admits that the agency’s own downlisting criteria identified in the red-cockaded woodpecker recovery plan are still not met, that significant threats to the species persist, and that the majority of their populations—or 108 out of 124 populations—are small, “with inherently very low or low resiliency” to threats.

When the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973, the once-prevalent red-cockaded woodpecker population had declined to fewer than 10,000 birds—after much of its longleaf pine habitat was destroyed due to logging and fire suppression. Although its population is slowly rebounding, the birds persist in extremely isolated clusters scattered across the Southeast, and require intensive management.

Federal protections have been essential to this species and the special Southeastern pine forests upon which it depends.

“The Fish & Wildlife Service’s attempt to remove protections for this iconic and rare Southeastern bird has not only ignored science, but also has largely excluded the public from the process,” says McGee.

The Fish & Wildlife Service’s attempt to remove protections for this iconic and rare Southeastern bird has not only ignored science, but also has largely excluded the public from the process.”

—Attorney Ramona McGee

SELC has consistently called on the Service to engage in an open and transparent process grounded in the best available science, providing the public and species experts the opportunity to evaluate relevant data and weigh in on the issue.

“Instead, the Service appears to want to claim another ‘recovered’ species, but claiming recovery versus actually achieving recovery are two very different things,” the attorney adds.

Prematurely removing protections and allowing for greater harm and killing of red-cockaded woodpeckers could cause the species to quickly backslide from its current population levels.

“The red-cockaded woodpecker still faces threats from habitat loss and climate change, putting this special species at a continued risk of extinction—especially if current protections are rolled back,” says McGee.

Click here to tell the Fish & Wildlife Service in a written comment that endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers are still endangered, and should not be downlisted from the status that is crucial to their survival.

Learn more about where this rule will fall short if it passes below:
  • Addressing ongoing threats from severe storms: The proposed rule acknowledges severe storms will continue to occur with increasing frequency and with consequent impacts to red-cockaded woodpeckers.
  • Possibly sets up a total delisting: The proposed rule seeks information to support a delisting, in line with our previously-explained concerns about the Fish & Wildlife Service seeking vague conservation promises from state and federal agencies in an attempt to remove all ESA-protections for the species.
  • Military leeway: Some of the largest populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers—and the ones the agency is relying on to attempt to justify the downlisting—occur on military installations. But the proposed rule would allow those military installations to take actions that would reduce population numbers and halt or reverse the recovery trends at these locations.
  • Insufficient incidental take protections: While the proposed rule protects birds from incidental or “non-intentional” take in several ways, it also creates broad exemptions from these protections that leave birds vulnerable during nesting season.
  • Removing FWS from habitat management planning: The rule proposes to give states the ability to determine what forestry activities do or do not constitute take, according to state-approved habitat management plans. 

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