COLUMBIA - President Donald Trump's administration, which has pushed to roll back an array of environmental laws, is moving to reduce endangered species protection for a tiny bird that once faced extinction in South Carolina and neighboring states.
The red-cockaded woodpecker would no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proceeds with a plan that asks landowners to voluntarily take care of birds on their property for the next 30 years. The agency is trying to decide whether to limit some protections for red-cockaded woodpeckers or drop protections altogether, according to an agency work plan and a recent letter to property owners.
While red-cockaded woodpeckers have rebounded from the brink of extinction in the past three decades, some experts and environmentalists say populations haven't grown enough to warrant dropping Endangered Species Act protections. Lawsuits are expected if the Trump administration seeks to eliminate red-cockaded woodpeckers from all protections under the law.
The endangered species law, approved by Congress in 1973 to help protect animals and plants at risk of extinction, often prohibits landowners from using their property in a way that might hurt populations of vulnerable species. Depending on the circumstances, that can include prohibitions on cutting timber or developing land.
"The red-cockaded woodpecker is going to be one that requires careful evaluation," said Jacob Malcolm, a conservation center director with the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. "If the species is no longer listed, we have to critically evaluate whether entirely voluntary efforts will be sufficient to maintain the great progress that has been made."
Defenders of Wildlife says the red-cockaded woodpecker is among 25 threatened or endangered species being examined for lesser protections by the federal government. Some species would be dropped from endangered to threatened status, a lesser designation that still affords some protections. But a plan developed this spring by the Fish and Wildlife Service says the agency may go further with red-cockaded woodpeckers, removing them completely.
Consultant Ralph Costa, a biologist who is one of the South's leading experts on red-cockaded woodpeckers, said a species restoration plan shows the birds aren't expected to fully recover for at least 50 years.
"It's going to be a real big deal," said Costa, a former Fish and Wildlife Service official. "Proposing a delisting, at this point, would be in disagreement with the recovery plan."
Brian Hires, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, had little to say about his agency's woodpecker plan, which is expected out this year.
"Since the rule for the red-cockaded woodpecker (Endangered Species Act) action is still being written, it is premature to discuss details of that action, including protections it will have," Hires said in a recent email to The State.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers are 7-inch-long birds that feast on bugs people typically dislike, including roaches, spiders and ants. The cavities they drill in pine trees often are used by other animals after red-cockaded woodpeckers leave.
The little birds once were abundant from New Jersey through the Southeast to Texas and Oklahoma. In the Carolinas and Georgia, they thrived in native long-leaf pine forests. But the loss of long leafs in the South depleted their habitat and caused populations to plummet. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are mostly black and white, but the males have streaks of red on the sides of their heads, which gives them their name.
The dwindling populations caused the federal government to declare them endangered in the early 1970s, leading to conflicts between landowners and wildlife agencies. Endangered species status for the woodpeckers limited people's ability to do what they wanted with their land, enraging property owners and causing them to take measures to keep the birds off the land.
Some landowners cleared forests before they were ready to harvest timber to avoid the possibility that woodpeckers would start nesting and restrict what could be done with the land. That hurt species populations that already had plummeted dramatically from the lack of habitat - namely the loss of long leaf pine forests since Colonial times.
In the 1990s, the government and landowners worked out an agreement that required people to maintain existing populations of woodpeckers, but did not hold them responsible for protecting land where new populations began to nest. When a landowner wanted to use property with the newly nested birds, federal authorities would relocate those woodpeckers to public lands.
Federal and state biologists drilled cavities in trees to make it easier for the birds to establish nests. In addition, managers of land with red-cockaded woodpeckers began burning pine forests intentionally to keep hardwood and undergrowth from popping up.
All of those efforts have helped the species grow in population in the South and in South Carolina. They are now being found in places the birds haven't been documented in for decades.
In an April 10 letter to landowners, Fish and Wildlife Service southern regional director Leopoldo Miranda said the agency wants landowners to say how they would manage and monitor red-cockaded woodpeckers if the species is dropped from listing under the Endangered Species Act. Relocating birds to safe areas, digging artificial cavities in trees and using prescribed fire are among ways landowners can protect the birds, referred to by biologists as "RCWs," the letter said.
"If we are able to determine that the current level of management commitments for RCWs are reasonably certain to occur for the next 30 or so years, it may be possible that the RCW be considered recovered and suitable for delisting," the letter said, asking property owners to "note how you anticipate managing RCWs for the foreseeable future."
Cam Crawford, who heads the S.C. Forestry Association, said agreements with landowners have defused problems and helped woodpeckers. He says voluntary efforts to protect species can work.
"It seems to have worked well," he said. "We can bring back these types of birds or animals that are facing a threat, and it doesn't always have to be a hostile regulatory type approach."
One thing is for certain: the birds are growing in population throughout the South.
In South Carolina, for instance, the state in 1993 had 681 clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers, or spots occupied by the birds. Today, the state has more than 1,450 clusters of the birds, according to federal data provided by Costa.
As an example of the improvement in woodpecker populations, the U.S. Forest Service reported last month that the woodpeckers were breeding in a recreation area of the Sumter National Forest in Edgefield County for the first time in four decades.
"The current population of South Carolina is expanding into parts of the historic range where they have been absent for many years," according to a Forest Service news release quoting Caroline Causey, a state Department of Natural Resources biologist.. "Management activities in the Lick Fork Lake Recreation Area have created the perfect habitat for turkey and quail and have culminated in suitable habitat for highly selective" woodpeckers.
Still, Causey and Costa told The State they have concerns about plans to lessen protections for red-cockaded woodpeckers. The woodpecker has not reached targeted goals for recovery in all parts of its range, which extends in South Carolina across the coast west to Columbia, Aiken and Edgefield. The species will be recovered once it has reached those numbers in every area of states listed in the federal recovery plan.
"The science does not back up trying to down-list them," Causey said in an interview.
Defenders of Wildlife president and chief executive officer Jamie Rappaport Clark, a one-time director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, urged her former agency to move carefully.
"At this critical time, we should be doing everything that we can to save imperiled species and their habitat, and fully funding and implementing the Endangered Species Act to defend against extinction," she said in a recent statement. "We call on the Fish and Wildlife Service to make delisting and down-listing decisions based on sound science. The Endangered Species Act is our strongest conservation law, and one of our nation's most successful laws ever enacted."
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