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Bird Conservation

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Habitat Conservation Plan

The only woodpecker to excavate its home in living pine trees, the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) (Picoides borealis) was probably a common resident of mature southeastern U.S. pine forests at one time. However, populations of this non-migratory species have drastically declined, and the bird is now listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because most of its required habitat has been altered through clearing, urbanization, incompatible forestry practices, and lack of periodic fire to maintain the pine stands in an open condition.

Most remaining RCWs exist on public lands such as national forests, national wildlife refuges, and military bases where large tracts of woodland habitat have been maintained in suitable condition. Many of these public land populations are under intensive management in an attempt to increase RCW numbers and recover the species from its endangered status. In Georgia, the largest public land populations are found at Fort Benning, Fort Stewart, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/Oconee National Forest/Brender Demonstration Forest.

Some RCWs also remain on private land in Georgia. The Red Hills region of Thomas and Grady counties supports a substantial RCW population. Suitable habitat has been maintained incidentally on adjacent large tracts of private land managed primarily for bobwhite quail. Most of the other RCWs on private lands, however, belong to small, isolated populations on relict fragments of habitat. These birds are continuing to disappear without contributing to the future of the species because of ongoing loss and fragmentation of habitat, lack of beneficial management, and the negative effects of demographic isolation.

Private landowners are not required to contribute toward species recovery, only to avoid "take" as defined by the ESA. Avoidance of take necessitates that landowners do not disturb the cluster of cavity trees used by a family group of RCWs, and that they maintain sufficient nearby pine forest foraging habitat. Sufficient foraging habitat has been defined as a minimum of 3000 square feet basal area of pines at least 10 inches in diameter nearby and contiguous to the cavity trees. This can be somewhat expensive in lost income opportunity because landowners might have to alter intended management activities, such as timber harvest or clearing, that would result in take through loss of habitat.

In order to relieve the burden on the few private landowners with RCWs that belong to small, isolated populations, while at the same time benefiting the overall RCW population, the Georgia DNR WRD is developing a habitat conservation plan (HCP) and applying for a statewide incidental take permit as allowed by Section 10(a)(1)(B) of the ESA. Qualifying landowners can have RCW management responsibilities removed from their property once replacement groups of RCWs have been created or equivalent additional habitat has been committed to permanent management at another location where the birds can contribute to a recovery or support population. Replacement groups can be formed through translocation or habitat management above and beyond what would occur anyway. All impacted RCWs will be translocated before habitat can be rendered unsuitable.

In addition, "safe harbor" agreements will be available to any interested landowners wishing to maintain suitable RCW habitat without incurring increased management responsibility should the RCW population on their land increase. The baseline responsibility will be to maintain habitat for the number of RCW groups present at the time of the agreement. Safe harbor with a baseline of zero can be used to protect landowners who have no RCW on their land, but have a realistic probability of receiving dispersing birds from nearby occupied RCW habitat.

For more information on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Habitat Conservation Plan in Georgia, call: (229) 227-5422.

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