Editorial: Lessons from finding the ivory-billed woodpecker
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2005:
At least one ivory-billed woodpecker still inhabits the Big
Woods region of Arkansas, the world learned on April 28, 2005.
Yet, 60 years after the brightly colored big bird was believed to
have been hunted to extinction, it is almost certainly still on the
Gene Sparling, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, first saw the
officially rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker on February 2, 2004
in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a relatively dense and
impenetrable swamp, not far from U.S. I-40, which runs in an almost
straight line from Memphis southwest to Little Rock.
Ornithologists Tim Gallagher of Cornell University and Bobby
Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, confirmed the
Sparling sighting after accompanying him to the vicinity. David
Luneau, of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, on April 25,
2004 videotaped the ivory-billed woodpecker taking off from the trunk
of a tree.
Before announcing the find, the scientists enlisted the help
of The Nature Conservancy to purchase more habitat.
No more than one ivory-billed woodpecker has been seen at a
time, and all of the confirmed sightings were of a male–although
turkey hunter, forestry student, and National Rifle Association
intern David Kelivan, 21, claimed to have seen a pair in the Pearl
River Wildlife Management Area of Louisiana, well to the south, on
April 1, 1999. That location is comparably dense swamp, not far
from the junction of U.S. I-10, I-12, and I-59. Kelivan’s account,
apparently not an April Fool, convinced enough experts that teams of
biologists repeatedly searched the area for three years seeking
confirmation. Their hopes were dashed when rapping sounds recorded
by remote listening devices turned out to be distant gunfire.
No definite ivory-billed woodpecker nests have been
discovered. Yet a breeding population almost certainly existed not
long ago, since the maximum lifespan of an ivory-billed woodpecker
is believed to be no more than 15 years. Even the oldest wild bird
on record, a Manx shearwater banded in Britain in 1953, believed to
be still alive, would not be old enough to be a remnant from 1939,
when 22 ivory-billed woodpeckers were seen at the Singer Tract in
Louisiana, after they were twice before believed to have been
extinct, or 1944, when the last nesting was reported, or 1946,
when the last bird was seen, other than unverified reports from
Georgia and the Florida Panhandle in the early 1950s.
The Singer Tract was clear-cut in 1948. Believed to have
ended any hope that the ivory-billed woodpecker might ever be seen
again, that act of ecological vandalism helped to impel the 1950
formation of The Nature Conservancy, now the biggest of all
The Nature Conservancy was rightly quick to claim credit for
preserving the Big Woods habitat–but dead wrong in citing the
rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in defense of its policy
of attempting to eradicate non-native species by any means possible,
including fire-setting and inundations with herbicides and pesticides.
The April 2005 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE detailed, beginning
on page1, thirty-odd years of effort by the Nature Conservancy and
National Park Service to kill feral pigs and other hooved stock on
Santa Cruz Island, off the southern California coast. This effort
accelerated in January 2005 with the commitment of $5 million to an
all-out attempt to purge the last pigs within 18 months.
Had the Nature Conservancy attempted to kill feral razorback
hogs around the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge with the same
zeal and same methods used to “protect” the habitat now incorporated
into Channel Islands National Park, the last ivory-billed
woodpeckers might have been among the casualties–just as the now
endangered Channel Islands fox is among the victims rather than the
beneficiaries of the Santa Cruz Island killing.
First the fox population boomed, feasting on dead animals.
The foxes were joined at the carrion piles by golden eagles who flew
in from the mainland. Then, as the carrion disappeared, the eagles
turned on the foxes, as well as the young of the surviving pigs.
Now the official line is that eradicating the pigs will send the
eagles elsewhere, but they might eat the last foxes–other than
those in a captive breeding program–before they go.
The habitat where an ivory-billed woodpecker was found
survived not because it was “managed” to preserve native species,
nor because it was remote wilderness, but because it was mostly left
alone, being mostly too wet and full of insects to either “manage”
Partisans in the perennial battle over how best to preserve
endangered species quickly claimed the rediscovery of the
ivory-billed woodpecker as a victory for their positions, regardless
of contrary evidence.
The White House pointed out that finding the ivory-billed
woodpecker illustrates the importance of privately funded
conservation. Yet nothing the George W. Bush administration has done
so far has encouraged private conservation, except by default, as
public lands have been opened or re-opened at an unprecedented pace
to hunting, trapping, fishing, logging, mining, grazing, oil
and gas drilling, off-road vehicles, and military training.
The ivory-billed woodpecker may still be just a mindless
shotgun blast or chainsawing of a nesting snag from eternal oblivion.
The only real contribution the Bush administration has made
to protecting either the habitat or the welfare of animals has been
by showing that whatever is saved through politics can be lost the
same way. This has encouraged people who are serious about
protecting animals and habitat to get serious about developing
cause-specific bipartisan political clout.
Interior Secretary Gail Norton promised a $10 million federal
effort to promote the recovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long
listed as an endangered species but without a recovery plan or
critical habitat designation. There have been no heated political
battles since 1948 over what should be done to save it. It was
nearly relisted as extinct in 1997.
While the Endangered Species Act is now the front line of
legal defense for the ivory-billed woodpecker, it was first
protected by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This is still the
only protection for most migratory birds in the U.S.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was amended in November 2004,
at request of The Nature Conservancy and other hunter/conservationist
organizations, to exempt from protection any human-introduced
“non-native” migratory species deemed problematic by the U.S. Fish &
Wildlife Service. The Fish & Wildlife Service at the time
anticipated issuing a “hit list” of 94 species. In January 2005,
the Fish & Wildlife Service published an expanded list of 113 species
that might be extirpated, with a preface promising that more might
Technically, that could allow the deliberate extirpation of
the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, last photographed in 1956 but
rediscovered in 1988, if restoration biologists had actually
followed through with a hypothetical scheme to reintroduce
ivory-billed woodpeckers to the U.S. by using the Cuban ivory-billed
woodpeckers as seed stock.
This idea remained hypothetical because Cuban biologists
doubted that enough woodpeckers remained to spare any. None have
been seen, in fact, since 1995. In addition, so little is known
of either the Cuban or the U.S. ivory-billed woodpeckers that their
exact relationship is anyone’s guess. Some ornithologists believe
they are genetically identical except for normal family variation.
Some say the Cuban woodpeckers are slightly smaller.
Currently they are classed as related subspecies rather than
the same bird in different habitats. Possibly the only hope for
maintaining enough genetic diversity to save either population may be
to introduce the remnants somehow and hope they “hybridize,” but
this might also be species purists’ worst nightmare.
Many conservationists have yet to recover from the shock of
discovering through DNA evidence that the last red wolves, who
shared most of the historic range of the ivory-billed woodpecker,
were in fact wolf/coyote hybrids. The “pure” red wolf either never
existed or was long ago subsumed by coyotes, who expanded into the
wolves’ range after humans hunted the wolves to virtual extinction.
Just 14 red wolves remained, all captive, when in 1987 the
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service started a breeding program at Bulls
Island, South Carolina. From Bulls Island came 26 pups who were the
progenitors of about 300 red wolves alive today, including 55 pups
born just this spring at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in North
The red wolf restoration effort survived wise-users’ lawsuits
contending that hybrid animals cannot be considered endangered
species, but lost political support as the coyote ancestry became
recognized. In March 2005 the Fish & Wildlife Service removed the
last three red wolves at Bulls Island to save $15,000.
The message all along should have been not that red wolves
should be preserved as a “pure” and therefore supposedly superior
lineage, but rather that predators including both wolves and coyotes
are essential to a healthy ecosystem. If they hybridize in their
effort to adapt to changing survival requirements, the emerging new
line is as worthy of appreciation and protection, and as needed by
nature, as the ancestors who contributed to the gene pool.
It is simplistic to argue, as some commentators have, that
the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker refutes the belief
that the earth is undergoing an “extinction crisis.” The existence
or non-existence of one specimen of a single species makes no strong
point on either side of the debate–though it is to be noted that
species discoveries and rediscoveries continue to exceed reported
extinctions by approximately 37-to-1, not including microbes, as
ANIMAL PEOPLE editorially noted in November 2002.
The rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker does
underscore other points that ANIMAL PEOPLE has made repeatedly over
First is that while the visibility of various species has
shifted, coinciding with human-induced habitat change, the
abundance of species relative to each other has no inherent
relationship to either biodiversity or the overall health of
ecosystems. Neither are “wilderness” and “optimum wildlife habitat”
to be confused.
One may find high native biodiversity in ecologically fragile
“wilderness” habitats like the Peruvian Amazon, where hardly
anything survives in abundance, non-native species rarely endure the
conditions, and almost every large species is endangered because of
human exploitation, including “sustainable” use by the present
gun-wielding “indigenous” residents.
Conversely, one may also find high native biodiversity in
older U.S. suburbs, featuring mature tree canopies, ornamental
fruit trees and berry bushes, and lawns that are at least
nocturnally accessible to grazing and burrowing animals. Along with
the native biodiversity will be abundant non-native species, filling
vacant niches and expanding the web of life.
The newly rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker is in what
might be described as fragmented habitat, from which it may be
unable to expand and recover. Yet the ivory-billed woodpecker might
recover quite well as more of the wetland woodlots alongside
interstate highways mature into old growth, forming corridors that
are gradually reconnecting habitat fragments into a meandering
greenbelt ecosystem. Already these largely unplanned greenbelt
corridors have helped opossums, coyotes, and whitetailed deer to
extend their range. Grass divider strips have helped nonmigratory
Canada geese to find their way from sites where they were introduced
to be hunted to suburbs, where they are now considered common lawn
The ivory-billed woodpecker was Exhibit A for an “extinction
crisis,” because as recently as 150 years ago it was occasionally
seen throughout the Southeast. Unlike the Carolina parakeet, which
vanished during the same decades for the same reasons, the
ivory-billed woodpecker was not narrowly confined to one habitat.
Yet unlike the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant and broadly
ranging of all lost North American species, the ivory-billed
woodpecker was rare even according to early 19th century observers
Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon.
The ivory-billed woodpecker might be best compared to the
California condor, another widely ranging bird who is memorably
spectacular but has always been scarce. After 23 years of captive
breeding, the last 22 California condors have become a population of
240, about half living in the wild, soaring over five western
states and northern Mexico. Reintroduction has succeeded largely
because of increased human tolerance, not only of spectacular wild
megafauna but also of common “nuisance” species, both native and
non-native, whose remains form much of the condors’ diet.
The chief lesson taught by both the partial recovery of the
California condor and the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker
ought to be to appreciate wildlife of every variety. Neither species
exists today because something else was massacred to save it. Both
exist as a bonus for allowing other animals of many different kinds
the space and opportunity to thrive.