Black-backed woodpeckers and severe fire


A charred forest is an eerie place, even years after a wildfire. I discovered this last summer while backpacking through Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. Dead trunks creaked as they swayed in the wind, their branches clacking against each other like bones. We moved quickly, as if walking past an avalanche-prone slope.

Had we stopped longer to listen, we might have heard evidence that not everyone thinks dead forests are so creepy. The black-backed woodpecker seeks out burned coniferous forests in northern North America, following wood-boring beetles that flock to the buffet of defenseless trees. The birds, who blend in perfectly with blackened bark, dine on the bugs for about a decade, then leave for a newly-burned area as beetle populations decline. But fire suppression, salvage logging and thinning have made the woodpecker’s habitat increasingly rare, and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list two distinct populations of the bird as threatened or endangered.

Last May, four conservation groups petitioned USFWS to consider a possible listing. They argued that decades of federal fire policy had left black-backed woodpeckers in bad shape: fewer than 1,000 pairs in Oregon and California, and only 400 pairs in the Black Hills (a third population in the Northern Rockies is doing better).

In early April, USFWS acknowledged that “the petition…presents substantial information that listing the two populations…may be warranted.” The public can comment until June 10, 2013, and then the agency will issue a decision in another year or so (maybe longer, due to budget cutbacks).

The conservation groups behind the petition (John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Blue Mountains Diversity Project and the Center for Biological Diversity) hope that listing the woodpecker will change fire management practices in Western forests, just like the spotted owl did for logging practices in the Northwest.

"We hope as a result of this, the Forest Service will in fact not only pay more attention to species like this, but do a proactive job of educating people that when fire happens, it is not a bad thing, wildlife rely upon it," Chad Hansen, a staff ecologist at the John Muir Project, told The Associated Press. "These notions of catastrophic wildfire are really just politics and ignorance, and reflect outdated thinking."

For Dick Hutto, a University of Montana biologist who studies black-backed woodpeckers and fire ecology, the ultimate goal of an ESA listing isn’t to protect the bird, but the environment it lives in.

“It’s not about the species,” he says. “If it were about the species, we could put them in a zoo. It’s about the system.”

Last summer, I interviewed Hutto for a story on an ongoing debate among fire ecologists over whether large, severe fires in some forest types occurred historically or are a new phenomenon. Hutto has spent years studying black-backed woodpeckers, determining that they live only in forests burned by severe fires. “The data are so strong it’s not even funny,” he told me. “You show me a black-backed outside of a burn, and I’ll give you $10,000.”

He concluded that severe fires must be a natural part of certain forest ecosystems, not just the result of bad forest management, grazing and climate change, as many other fire ecologists (and government forest plans) argue. How else could a bird evolve to live only in the aftermath of such fires?

Seen in this context, the decline of the black-backed woodpecker is a sign that we need to allow more severe fire on the landscape. “Birds are talking and I like to listen,” he says, “and the black-backed woodpecker is telling us something about a system we need to be thinking about.”

Not everyone agrees with Hutto, Hansen, and other fire ecologists who stand up for severe wildfire, and at times the debate can get pretty nasty, with researchers attacking each other’s credibility. I’m betting that if the USFWS decides to list the woodpecker, it’s not just federal fire policy that will be in the spotlight, but once again, the question of whether big, severe fires are natural in some forests.

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy USFWS-Northeast Region, via Flickr.

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