August 23, 2007

Studying Woodpecker Habitat Said Costly


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Federal wildlife officials say it's worth millions of dollars to research the suspected habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker, despite conflicting views on whether the elusive bird even exists in the swamps of east Arkansas.

"There's enough out there that we've got to keep searching," said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It'd be irresponsible not to."

The agency this week released a 185-page draft plan aimed at preventing the extinction of the bird. The draft plan, which is open for public comment until Oct. 22, recommends spending more than $27 million in federal dollars on recovery efforts for the woodpecker.

"The opportunity to recover this icon of the ornithological world cannot and should not be passed over," said Sam Hamilton, regional director for the service's Southeast Region and leader of the recovery team.

Much of the recovery work has been happening in Arkansas, but projects are also under way in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas, Fleming said.

The plan outlines habitat needs and future conservation efforts aimed at protecting the woodpecker. The plan was drafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Georgia, Florida Gulf Coast University, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Foundation.

The woodpecker, thought to already be extinct, was reportedly spotted by Cornell University researchers in 2004 in an eastern Arkansas swamp. Researchers and birders have since converged on the Cache River Wildlife Management Area hoping to spot the huge bird and hear its distinct double-rapping.

Researchers have also reported spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker in a northwest Florida swamp.

"The service works with its partners to prevent extinction of species like the ivory-billed woodpecker and that is the opportunity before us now," Hamilton said. "We want to encourage interested citizens, agencies and conservation organizations to participate in the comment period."

The proposed recovery efforts include research on the bird's status and ecology, developing new surveying techniques, conducting forest inventories in the Cache and White River basins and developing population estimates, among other measures.

Fleming said recovery efforts are worth the money even though some have questioned whether the ivory-billed woodpecker sightings were legitimate.

"I would characterize it as tantalizing evidence," he said. "We don't have an active nest right now, we don't have an 8 by 10 glossy to look at every day. ... But we're learning a lot about the bird's habitat needs and things like that. We're optimistic."


On the Net: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Draft Recovery Plan: http://www.fws.gov/ivorybill/