Two isolated populations of a woodpecker species native to the northern Rockies may soon receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. Recent efforts by environmentalists to win protection for the birds would, if successful, make it harder for companies across the Northwest to salvage timber from some forests destroyed by wildfire.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began taking public comment April 9 on a proposal to partially list the black-backed woodpecker, which nests in pine trees killed by intense wildfires. The isolated populations live in the burned forests of eastern Oregon and California, as well as the Black Hills.
The listing review currently excludes members of the same species living in the northern Rockies. Dick Hutto of the University of Montana Avian Science Center hopes the woodpecker listing will change the way people think about burned forests across the West.
"The listing is not about the woodpeckerit's about our lack of appreciation for the maintenance of forest conditions that it needs to do well," Hutto says. "The message applies to all populations of the species."
Trees killed by intense wildfire are known as snags. Congress and the U.S. Forest Service began putting laws in place in 1995 to speed up the process for selling snag stands to logging companies. Timber industry representatives argue that leaving dead trees in place increases the danger of larger wildfire outbreaks.
Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, contends that the bird doesn't need ESA protection because of an abundance of unsalvaged snag stands."The amount of habitat that it has available to it has been increasing by hundreds of thousands of acres each year," Burns says.
Justin Augustine, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, says federal officials could make the black-backed a listed species as early as this winter. However, the process has not gone swiftly so far, in part because of federal sequestration.
Listing would require the Forest Service to consult with FWS before allowing logging companies to cut snag stands suitable for the woodpecker. Failure by the agency to comply with the ESA consultation requirement would give conservation groups options in challenging controversial salvage sales. These groups complain that the current laws allow forestry officials to cut down snags and answer for it after the fact.
"These birds could wink out of existence if we don't stop razing their habitat as quickly as it appears," Augustine says.