From: Center for Biological Diversity
Published April 9, 2013 06:09 AM

Black-backed Woodpeckers love burnt out forests. They are also endangered

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it will conduct a full status review to determine whether genetically distinct populations of black-backed woodpeckers — which thrive in forests where fires have burned — will get protection under the Endangered Species Act in two regions, California/Oregon and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Today’s decision that protection may be warranted for these birds comes in response to a scientific petition submitted by four conservation groups last May. Black-backed woodpeckers are threatened by logging that destroys their post-fire habitat.

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"This is the first time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that the government has initiated steps to protect a wildlife species that depends upon stands of fire-killed trees,"said Dr. Chad Hanson, an ecologist and black-backed woodpecker expert. "We are pleased to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognize the naturalness and ecological importance of this post-fire habitat."

Black-backed woodpeckers rely on what is known as "snag forest," high-diversity habitat that's extremely rare and ephemeral because it is only created when either fire or beetles kill the majority of trees in an area. These standing dead trees — called "snags" — then become a virtual bed and breakfast for black-backed woodpeckers by providing nesting space as well as large amounts of wood-boring beetle larvae for the woodpeckers to eat.

Post-disturbance forests are only livable for the species for a short time — roughly 7-10 years — which means the woodpeckers need newly burned or beetle-killed forests to continually appear on the landscape. Unfortunately, that habitat is often destroyed by post-disturbance logging that removes the very trees the birds rely on. Because of logging, suppression of the natural fire regime and large-scale forest "thinning" to prevent fires in backcountry areas, there is now an extremely limited amount of usable habitat available to black-backed woodpeckers.

"The black-backed woodpecker is so highly adapted to burned forests that it's almost impossible to spot when perched on a fire-blackened tree," said Duane Short, a zoologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "Its black back and wing feathers protect it from predators as it forages for beetles, some of which have themselves evolved in concert with burned forests."

Black-backed woodpecker photo credit Cephas / Wikimedia Commons.

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