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USFWS to consider endangered species listing for woodpeckers that rely on post-fire habitat

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Black-backed woodpeckers rely on recently burned forests for habitat. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

Salvage logging, fire suppression seen as key threats

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — U.S. Forest Service programs touted as forest health work may be the the primary threats to two populations of black-backed woodpeckers that rely on post-fire habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week said it will consider those threats to the rare birds in California, Oregon and the Black Hills of South Dakota as it decides whether to protect the birds under the Endangered Species Act based on a petition requesting protection.

Some of the primary threats to the populations that were included in the petition include post-disturbance salvage logging, active fire suppression that limits the acreage and severity of fires each year, and forest thinning programs.

“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.”

Based on the information in the listing petition, the Service believes that listing the Oregon Cascades-California and Black Hills populations of the black-backed woodpecker as distinct population segments or subspecies may be warranted. The USFWS will gather information on the species through June 10.

The black-backed woodpecker is similar in size to the more common American robin and is heavily barred with black and white sides.  Males and young have a yellow crown patch, while the female crown is entirely black.  Its sooty-black dorsal plumage camouflages it against the black, charred bark of the burned trees where it feeds on wood-boring insect larvae. Different from other woodpeckers, the black-backed woodpecker has only three toes on each foot instead of the usual four.

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.”

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.

The preliminary decision, formally known as a 90-day finding, considers only information presented by the petitioner and information in Service files at the time the petition was received. The finding does not mean the Service has decided to list the species. It’s the first step in a longer process that triggers a more thorough review of the species.

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.

Comments can be submitted to:

  • Federal eRulemaking Portal:  http://www.regulations.gov.  Search docket FWS-R8-ES-2013-0034 and follow instructions for submitting comments.
  • U.S. mail or hand-delivery:  Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R8-ES-2013-0034 Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM; Arlington, VA 22203.

Information received during the comment period will be posted at http://www.regulations.gov.

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