The red-cockaded woodpecker is doing so well in its recovery efforts in South Carolina and elsewhere, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to change its status from endangered to threatened.
The species, which has a large presence in the Francis Marion National Forest north of Charleston, has been on the endangered list since the 1970s.
At that time, 1,470 clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers were estimated living in the United States. The Wildlife Service now estimates nearly 7,800 clusters in 11 states ranging from Virginia to Texas.
“This down-listing is a major milestone in the recovery of the woodpecker, and the service looks forward to the day when it will be fully recovered and we can remove it entirely from the list of threatened and endangered species,” said Phil Kloer, an agency spokesman.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers depend on living mature pine trees to build their internal nests. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 displaced about half of the population in the Francis Marion National Forest. There were an estimated 475 breeding pairs in the forest before the storm.
To help the birds rebound, forest managers created and inserted man-made “condos,” or wooden boxes, into trees so the birds would have a place to live. The effort has been credited in assisting the population recover.
Forest managers think there are now about 515 family clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Francis Marion.
The same recovery trends are being seen throughout the Southeast, according to wildlife officials. In addition to the artificial cavities, the service credits the location of juvenile woodpeckers to forests with fewer birds with helping the species repopulate.
Timothy Evans, forest program manager with Audubon South Carolina, said the organization is glad the birds will retain threatened status but is concerned about the future in light of climate change impacts.
Evans cited Hurricane Michael as another example where a storm dealt a devastating blow to a longleaf pine habitat. The storm damaged areas of the Central Florida panhandle, which is home to a large breeding population of the rare species.
"Protection is always more effective and less expensive than restoration," Evans said. "Status determinations like this must take into account climate impacts to truly be complete."
A downlisting from endangered to threatened won’t be the end of conservation efforts for the bird, Kloer said. The agency will continue to work with partners to monitor and protect the species and undertake conservation measures.
An “endangered species” is one in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A “threatened species” is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range, according to the federal wildlife agency.
There must be a 60-day public comment period before final approval can be given to down-list the endangered status.
Scientists, conservationists, wildlife agencies and others can provide the Fish and Wildlife Service with scientific information that either shows support or opposition to the proposal. Visit regulations.gov for more information. The agency will weigh the opinions before a final decision is made.