Endangered or not, what changes?
Since the red-cockaded woodpecker was reclassified, it isn’t worse off. But that doesn’t mean its outlook is good.
By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published June 25, 2006
Two weeks ago, when critics questioned the wisdom of dropping manatees off Florida’s list of endangered species, state officials reminded everyone of what happened with the red-cockaded woodpecker.
Four years ago, state wildlife commissioners said the woodpecker should be dropped down a peg on the list of protected species — and so far, nothing bad has happened, they pointed out. So to believe that by reclassifying manatees from “endangered’’ to “threatened,’’ would lead to their extinction would be “an erroneous assumption,’’ said Ken Haddad, the agency’s executive director.
In fact, the manatees’ protection might even improve, state wildlife officials contended, because the next step calls for writing a plan for managing the species.
Yet if what happened to the red-cockaded woodpecker is a guide, not much will change for manatees, or for the boaters who have spent the past five years chafing under regulations designed to protect manatees.
Ornithologists say the management plan the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission came up with for helping red-cockaded woodpeckers did not require the state to do much that was different from what it already had been doing.
“It really hasn’t changed,’’ said Jim Cox, an ornithologist with the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee.
State wildlife officials do not track how much money they spend on the woodpecker or how many people are working on the species, said Robin Boughton, the commission’s red-cockaded woodpecker coordinator for the past three years. So there is no way to tell whether the state is spending more or less or devoting more or fewer people to the job. But the likelihood is that little changed.
“We were already at 100 percent,’’ Boughton said.
The plan listed seven “priority actions’’ that the state should pursue, such as creating a database showing where all the woodpeckers remain. So far, the state has completed five of them, she said.
In recent years, Haddad pointed out, the woodpecker population has increased in Florida. But experts say the increase was brought about by expensive artificial measures and not natural means.
If biologists stopped helping the woodpeckers spread out, “they would revert right back to going downhill again,’’ Florida Gulf Coast University professor Jerry Jackson said.
The red-cockaded woodpecker, just 7 inches long, has not sparked nearly as much controversy as the 1,000-pound manatee, which has been the subject of debate in the halls of Washington as well as in Florida.
But just as boater groups opposed to increased regulations to protect manatees questioned whether they really deserved protection, so timber and development interests contended four years ago that the woodpecker was on the rebound and thus did not deserve its place on the state’s protected species list.
And as with the manatee, amid a storm of controversy the state wildlife agency voted to take the woodpecker down a peg from “threatened’’ to calling it a “species of special concern.’’
Yet despite Florida’s change of its status, federal officials still consider the red-cockaded woodpecker to be endangered.
A century ago, red-cockaded woodpeckers roamed as far north as New Jersey, but they were particularly populous in the South. But their choice of homes has made them extremely scarce.
They spend years excavating cavities in mature pine trees, particularly long-leaf pines, which once covered as much as 90-million acres across the South. Because their old cavities become homes for others, including bees and screech owls, they are regarded as a keystone species for forest health.
Logging and development have wiped out most of the South’s long-leaf forests and put a stop to the regular burning necessary to maintaining most healthy pines. Now the red-cockaded woodpecker has disappeared from six of the states where it was once common. In the rest of its range its numbers have plummeted. The bird has lost an estimated 97 percent of its population over the past 100 years.
In 1968, at the urging of a Texas ornithologist, federal wildlife officials put the red-cockaded woodpecker on one of their earliest lists of endangered species, according to papers found by Jackson of FGCU.
When federal officials asked state officials throughout the South their opinion, most agreed. Virginia, for instance, said that rather than calling the woodpecker “endangered,’’ a better term would be “doomed.’’
Only Florida officials openly opposed the move, arguing that the so-called experts didn’t know what they were talking about.
“I do know that quite a few old-time ornithologists ... are saying that the species is diminishing,’’ a Florida game official wrote. “It could be that their eyesight is failing, or something.’’
When federal officials nevertheless included the woodpecker on their list of endangered species, all the Southern states followed suit — except Florida, which in 1974 listed it as “threatened.’’ A year later, Florida upgraded the woodpecker’s protection to “endangered,’’ but then in 1979 dropped it back down to “threatened,’’ and that’s where it stayed for 20 years — until the state changed the way it lists species as endangered.
The vote to no longer call red-cockaded woodpeckers “threatened’’ went against the recommendation of the state Department of Forestry, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council and the South Florida Water
Management District, which all said the change wrongly suggested the bird no longer needed as much protection.
Federal wildlife experts also said reclassifying the woodpecker may “reduce the management attention that is given to the species, particularly on private and state-owned lands in Florida.”
Even Haddad, the agency’s executive director, warned his bosses that the vote would be seen as a sign “that we’re not taking this species as seriously as we should.’’ But they did it anyway.
“My conclusion is that the only way the red-cockaded woodpecker will ever be designated endangered, or indeed threatened, in Florida is if it goes extinct,” Virginia Polytechnic Institute professor Jeffrey Walters, who has spent 20 years studying the woodpecker, wrote at the time.
When the state changed its system for classifying species, state officials did not want to use the same definitions that the federal system follows because they thought those definitions were too vague.
Instead, they adapted a set of criteria from an international agency, the World Conservation Union. But rather than keep the same terms, they changed them to match what was in state law, a move that still sparks debate.
The state’s new criteria say a species that’s “endangered’’ is one that has lost 80 percent of its population during the past 10 years — even though the World Conservation Union would call that “critically endangered.’’
To qualify as “threatened’’ under the state’s new system, a species must have lost at least 50 percent of its population during the past 10 years, even though to the World Conservation Union, that still would count as “endangered.’’
The red-cockaded woodpecker did not qualify for anything but the lowest rung on the state’s ladder because its remaining estimated population of 12,500 had not dropped by 80 or even 50 percent in the past decade. And while its future did not look rosy — state wildlife experts said the population could decline another 23 percent by 2020 — that wasn’t bad enough to merit a higher listing, either.
A coalition of environmental and animal welfare groups petitioned the state recently to overturn the new system, but wildlife commissioners went ahead with the manatee vote anyway. During the same meeting they also upgraded gopher tortoises, which have been hurt by both disease and development, from a “species of special concern’’ to “threatened.’’
In a report on the gopher tortoise’s status, state wildlife biologists said a major factor in the animal’s poor prospects was the fact that Florida’s human population, now at 16-million, is projected to grow to 25-million in the next 30 years, converting another 3-million acres of natural land to urban uses. That could spell bad news for other species such as the red-cockaded woodpeckers.
“I’m rather pessimistic about the future for many of these endangered species,’’ Jackson said, “because of our increasing inability to save habitat.’’