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Know the West

The woodpecker and the owl


How is a black-backed woodpecker like a spotted owl? Well, if an environmental group has its way, the woodpecker will join the owl as a species whose protection changes forest management on a broad scale.

The spotted owl, which depends on old-growth forests, was federally listed as threatened in 1990. Subsequently, logging across the Northwest dropped dramatically, for economic reasons as well as to preserve the owl's habitat (see our stories  Spotted owl or red herring? and Hostile Takeover).  The black-backed woodpecker depends on the charred trees left by high-intensity fire, and the Center for Biological Diversity has just petitioned California to list the bird as a threatened or endangered species, which would curtail salvage logging after such fires.

“California’s forestry rules currently contain a loophole that allows post-fire salvage logging to essentially occur unchecked, which allows the destruction of vital habitat for the black-backed woodpecker and other species,” said Justin Augustine, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “State-level endangered species protection for the woodpecker will help close that loophole.”

The Center cites recent scientific evidence that high-severity forest fires leave behind a "snag forest" that's important to a range of species including many birds, butterflies, small rodents, and deer and elk, and that both thinning to reduce fire danger and salvage logging after fires damage this habitat. A recent report from Earth Island Institute further explains the evolving conclusions about "catastrophic" wildfires and logging.

The black-backed woodpecker, a medium-sized bird with a sooty-black head and back, is found across the U.S. but there are only 300 pairs left in California. The prospects for its listing under that state's Endangered Species Act don't look great, though. Other forest-dependent species in the state have been batting 50-50. In September, the state decided to declare the mountain yellow-legged frog as a candidate for listing, but rejected listing for the Pacific fisher, largely because of opposition from the timber industry.