California steps in to protect rare woodpecker

Posted by Christine, December 26, 2011

(12-26) 02:44 PST South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (AP)

Over the objections of the U.S. Forest Service, wildlife officials in California are taking steps at the state level to protect a rare woodpecker partly because the federal agency won’t stop logging the bird’s ever-shrinking habitat in burned stands of national forests in the Sierra Nevada.

The California State Fish and Game Commission recently voted to add the black-backed woodpecker to the list of species that are candidates for protection under the California Endangered Species Act, launching a year-long status review of the bird that is at the center of an ongoing legal battle in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over salvage logging in the area where 250 homes burned near Lake Tahoe in 2007.

Commissioner Michael Sutton said he’s satisfied there is a “substantial possibility” the woodpecker could end up being listed as threatened. He said his support for the move was based in part on correspondence from the Forest Service indicating the agency doesn’t believe the bird needs any protection and that even if it did, USFS wouldn’t be required to provide it.

The Forest Service had designated the black-backed as the indicator species for all fish and wildlife dependent on burned forests across the Sierra, from north of Tahoe to south of Yosemite. It’s the same kind of designation agency biologists gave the northern spotted owl in the 1980s to serve as a barometer of the overall health of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

But, said Sutton, it has become clear “their management policy has changed recently. They now permit, under relevant forest management plans, 100 percent salvage logging of burned areas, which is the preferred habitat of this species.

“That may be fine for the Forest Service,” said Sutton, after moving to add the woodpecker to the state’s list of candidate species on Dec. 15. “Their mandate is multiple-use, including timber harvest… Our mandate is stewardship of wildlife.”

Commissioner Daniel Richards was the lone dissenter in the 3-1 vote advancing the listing petition by the Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project in Cedar Ridge, Calif.

“I do believe it is a rare species, but that doesn’t make it is endangered. It has been rare forever,” Richards said. “We get these every month. Everybody would like for us to list everything as endangered … to burden our department with further analysis.”

Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, said the action was significant because “they are acknowledging that not only is there a total lack of protection from clear cutting on private lands, they (the woodpeckers) also don’t have any protections on Forest Service land to fall back on.”

“It’s the first time anybody has acknowledged that a species is impacted by post-fire salvage logging,” added Justine Augustine, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity based in San Francisco. “They accepted the fact there is substantial evidence there is a problem here and we’re going to have to step in.”

Hanson, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Davis, helped persuade the Forest Service in recent years to designate the black-backed woodpecker the indicator species for all wildlife dependent on burned forests throughout the Sierra and has been citing the agency’s own research for years in his bid to show the bird may already be on its way to extinction.

“Even in burned forests, the black-backed is one of the rarest birds in California,” he said, adding there is “no dispute its habitat has declined dramatically since the 19th and early 20th century due to fire suppression.”

As a result, such post-fire habitat now comprises less than one-half of 1 percent of the Sierra forests the woodpecker once inhabited, he said.