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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

Editorial: Resist rollback of protections for red-cockaded woodpeckers

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Homes for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers are ready and waiting at Silver Bluff sanctuary 6 (copy)

An artificial nest installed in a longleaf pine at the Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary along the Savannah River in Aiken County is ready for a red-cockaded woodpecker.

South Carolina’s red-cockaded woodpeckers, a keystone species in longleaf pine forests, have made a remarkable comeback since Hurricane Hugo leveled many of the trees in which they build their homes. But South Carolinians need to resist efforts to remove these birds from the federal endangered species list until population growth rates reach 5% per year, a goal set years ago by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Thanks largely to state and federal efforts, the population growth rate in South Carolina is now about 4% annually — faster than in any other state or region.

As reported by The Post and Courier’s Shamira McCray, rangers in the Francis Marion National Forest and elsewhere for years have been busy building homes for the woodpeckers in mature longleaf pine forests whose underbrush has been cleared by controlled fires. Normally, it takes years for the birds to peck out a cavity in the trunk of a tree, but rangers can install these condominiums in hours.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are socially complex, nonmigratory birds, living in family units made up of a single female, her mate and several other male helpers. In South Carolina alone, these clusters have increased from about 680 in 1993 to more than 1,450 today. The smallish black-and-white birds — males have a red streak on the sides of their heads — and their dug-out homes also help support about two dozen other species and help control timber-threatening insects, their primary food.

The birds, also nearly wiped out by loggers in the 19th and 20th centuries, now are expanding their turf, moving in to areas like Sumter National Forest in Edgefield County and onto privately conserved land where stands of longleaf pine have been restored. On Wednesday, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced a $5.6 million grant to be shared among eight states, including South Carolina, for restoring longleaf pine forests.

Why is there an effort to have the birds reclassified as threatened or removed from the endangered species list altogether? The woodpeckers can get in the way of development.

As Ms. McCray reported, the presence of five families of the woodpeckers on Berkeley County land eyed by Mercedes-Benz for a new plant in the early 1990s became a minor sticking point, and the automaker eventually set up shop in Alabama instead. The endangered birds also held up the development of a golf course in Myrtle Beach. Since then, provisions have been made for relocating woodpeckers in some circumstances.

Obviously, there needs to be a sensible balance between conservation and development. But consider that only about 5% of the woodpeckers’ habitat remains, and each cluster needs 70 to 200 acres to survive. And though the birds are rebounding, their nationwide population of about 14,000 is a far cry from historical estimates of 1.6 million.

Since 1973, the birds have been listed as endangered, which in some cases governs how land can be used. But federal wildlife officials began reevaluating the status of red-cockaded woodpeckers in 2018 and presented a plan last spring that would remove almost all of their protections on private land — even though many experts don’t expect the species to fully recover for another 50 years.

Such a move would be in keeping with the Trump administration’s unfortunate trend of rolling back protections for dozens of species, including osprey and other birds that might interfere with power lines. It would also be a mistake.

South Carolinians should care about both growing the red-cockaded woodpecker population and expanding their habitat. Mature longleaf pine forests, and the creatures that live in them, are defining features of our region. We can’t afford to lose them.

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