Dead trees, biodiversity, and the black-backed woodpecker

  • A black-backed woodpecker brings beetle larvae to its young, concealed in a cavity in a burnt tree near Camp Sherman, Oregon.

    Tara Tanaka

The ruins of scorched or beetle-killed forests may not seem like ecological havens. But myriad species depend on standing dead or dying trees, including the black-backed woodpecker, which haunts skeletal forests in the West, Alaska and Canada. Its ebony dorsal plumage blends in with the charred tree trunks on which the bird rummages for juicy wood-boring beetle grubs, its principle prey.

The beetles are also adapted to scorched forest habitat; some species, called "fire-chasers," can detect forest fires as far as 30 miles away, using specialized heat receptors. They arrive in droves, mate, and lay eggs under the burned trees' bark. When the larvae hatch, they freely chew away at the defenseless trees.

But fire suppression, thinning and salvage logging on federal lands may be destroying this unique snag habitat. Fewer than 1,000 pairs of black-backed woodpeckers persist in Oregon and California, and fewer than 500 in South Dakota's Black Hills. The Center for Biological Diversity and three other groups asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month to protect those populations under the Endangered Species Act -- the first federal petition to recognize the importance of post-fire habitat, experts say.

SOURCES: The Center for Biological Diversity; John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute;; Scott Sonner, Associated Press; Schutz, S., Weissbecker, B., Hummel, E. H., Apel, Karl-Heinz, Schmitz, H., Bleckmann, H. (1999). 

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