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For Immediate Release, April 8, 2013


Chad Hanson, John Muir Project: (530) 273-9290;       
Justin Augustine, Center for Biological Diversity: (415) 436-9682 x 302;
Duane Short, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance: (307) 742-7978;
Karen Coulter, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project: (541) 385-9167

Black-backed Woodpeckers One Step Closer to Endangered Species Act Protection in
California, Oregon, South Dakota

SAN FRANCISCO— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it will conduct a full status review to determine whether genetically distinct populations of black-backed woodpeckers — which thrive in forests where fires have burned — will get protection under the Endangered Species Act in two regions, California/Oregon and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Today’s decision that protection may be warranted for these birds comes in response to a scientific petition submitted by four conservation groups last May. Black-backed woodpeckers are threatened by logging that destroys their post-fire habitat.

Black-backed woodpecker
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Cephas. Photos are available for media use.

“This is the first time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that the government has initiated steps to protect a wildlife species that depends upon stands of fire-killed trees,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, an ecologist and black-backed woodpecker expert. “We are pleased to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognize the naturalness and ecological importance of this post-fire habitat.”

Black-backed woodpeckers rely on what is known as “snag forest,” high-diversity habitat that’s extremely rare and ephemeral because it is only created when either fire or beetles kill the majority of trees in an area. These standing dead trees — called “snags” — then become a virtual bed and breakfast for black-backed woodpeckers by providing nesting space as well as large amounts of wood-boring beetle larvae for the woodpeckers to eat.

Post-disturbance forests are only livable for the species for a short time — roughly 7-10 years — which means the woodpeckers need newly burned or beetle-killed forests to continually appear on the landscape. Unfortunately, that habitat is often destroyed by post-disturbance logging that removes the very trees the birds rely on. Because of logging, suppression of the natural fire regime and large-scale forest “thinning” to prevent fires in backcountry areas, there is now an extremely limited amount of usable habitat available to black-backed woodpeckers.

 “The black-backed woodpecker is so highly adapted to burned forests that it’s almost impossible to spot when perched on a fire-blackened tree,” said Duane Short, a zoologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “Its black back and wing feathers protect it from predators as it forages for beetles, some of which have themselves evolved in concert with burned forests.”

“These birds desperately need the lifeline of the Endangered Species Act,” said Justin Augustine with the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are likely only a few hundred pairs left in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and about a thousand pairs in Oregon and California — these birds could wink out of existence if we don’t stop razing their habitat as soon as it appears.”

With dangerously small populations of fewer than 1,000 pairs in Oregon/California and only about 400 pairs in the Black Hills, the birds depend on habitat that’s likewise extremely scarce: Just 2 percent of the forests within the woodpeckers’ range from the Cascades of Oregon through California’s Sierra Nevada are currently likely suitable for them to live in, and only about 5 percent of forests in the Black Hills are suitable. The great majority of this limited habitat is unprotected and therefore open to logging.

“Over my 22 years of field-checking proposed timber sales in eastern Oregon national forests, I have been privileged to observe black-backed woodpeckers but have increasingly noticed their scarcity as the Forest Service has been implementing ever larger timber sales aimed at artificially reducing natural fire and insect occurrence, as well as numerous post-fire logging projects eliminating black-backed woodpecker habitat,” said Karen Coulter of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project. “This status review is a good first step toward reversing that trend”

The groups that filed the petition to protect the birds were John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

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