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Bird Conservation

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Conservation in Georgia

The only woodpecker to excavate its home in living pine trees, the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) (Picoides borealis) was a common resident of mature southeastern U.S. pine forests at one time. RCWs require large acreages of open, mature, frequently burned pine stands for foraging and the creation of nest cavities. However, populations of this non-migratory species have drastically declined, and the bird is 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 pine stands in an open condition.

Most remaining RCWs exist on public lands such as national forests, national wildlife refuges, and military installations 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 Stewart, Fort Benning, Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/Oconee National Forest, and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. State-owned properties with RCWs include Silver Lake WMA and Moody Forest WMA.

Some RCWs also remain on private land in Georgia. The Red Hills region of Thomas and Grady counties supports the largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers on private lands. Suitable habitat in the Red Hills has been maintained incidentally on adjacent large tracts of private land managed primarily for bobwhite quail. 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 1999, the Georgia DNR developed the nation’s first statewide red-cockaded woodpecker Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to provide management options for private landowners. The plan includes options for mitigated incidental take and for Safe Harbor. Qualifying landowners with RCWs on small, isolated properties 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. All impacted RCWs will be translocated before habitat can be rendered unsuitable.

A more commonly used program is Safe Harbor. Safe Harbor targets landowners primarily in southwest Georgia, where plantations managed for the northern bobwhite also support a significant population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Safe Harbor involves a landowner’s commitment to beneficially manage habitat for the site’s “baseline” number of woodpecker family groups, or those on the site when the agreement is made. A family group refers to red-cockaded woodpeckers occupying a cluster of cavity trees. In exchange for maintenance of this baseline number of family groups, the landowner’s responsibility does not increase if the woodpecker population increases. Safe harbor with a baseline of zero can be used to protect landowners who have no RCWs on their land, but have a realistic probability of receiving dispersing birds from nearby occupied RCW habitat.

In Georgia, 176,593 acres are enrolled in Safe Harbor management agreements covering 105 baseline groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers and supporting 38 surplus groups, or additions to those woodpecker populations. Most of these properties are in the Red Hills region near Thomasville. Since the inception of Safe Harbor in 2000, this population has stabilized at about 180 groups.

For more information on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation in Georgia, call: (478) 299-5059

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