December 13, 2005

Hunters Helped Save Rare Bird from Extinction

By Deborah Zabarenko

BRINKLEY, Arkansas -- A hunting lodge with antler chandeliers and stuffed ducks on the walls seems a strange place to celebrate the comeback of the ivory-billed woodpecker, but wildlife officials are doing exactly that.

They credit hunters in particular with helping bring the rare bird back from presumed extinction in the Big Woods section of Arkansas.

"The people of Arkansas, the hunting and fishing community, conserved these woods," Scott Simon of The Nature Conservancy told reporters on Monday at the Mallard Pointe Lodge, where a coalition of environmentalists, academics and wildlife officials rejoiced in woodpecker's return to the living.

Simon said hunters and others helped save the bird in large part by buying Duck Stamps, at $15 each. These stamps are not for postage, but pay for a federal migratory bird conservation fund, and eventually added up to $41 million to reclaim much of the habitat of the endangered woodpecker.

"The $41 million went into the land before the ivory bill showed up," Simon said.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was believed extinct for the last 60 years, and various reports of sightings of the big bird -- jet black and bright white with a red crest on the male -- were dismissed by professional ornithologists.

Their scepticism was warranted because of the destruction of the big old trees over much of the American southeast that began after the U.S. Civil War. The ivory bill's large size, with a body perhaps 20 inches (50 cm) long means it needs large trees to nest in. It is known to scale the bark off old, dying and dead trees to get at the cigar-sized grubs that live there.


But that was before an amateur naturalist said he saw one while paddling in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in February 2004. When he brought two bird experts to the same spot, they saw it too. And when a professor captured the bird in flight in fuzzy but authentic video, an analysis of all the data pointed to the startling fact that the ivory bill was back.

The ivory bill's public rediscovery last April energized a massive search in eastern Arkansas. Starting in November, teams of paid experts and volunteers have been scouring the Big Woods for signs of the bird.

In this, too, hunters are allies, according to Scott Henderson, director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

"The deer hunter and the duck hunter out there are some of the best eyes and ears we've got," Henderson said. "We have 7,000 hunters in this same area for eight hours at a time or more in some cases."

Good observers are essential to catching a glimpse of the camera-shy ivory bill. So far, some 20,000 hours of searching by dozens of trained observers have failed to spot the bird. But that is understandable, given each woodpecker's presumed 12 mile (20 km) foraging range. Experts do not know how many ivory-billed woodpeckers might exist in this area.

The total search area in Arkansas takes in 550,000 acres (222,600 hectares) of forest and swamp. Since last year, searchers have covered about 160 square kilometers (62 square miles).

Henderson acknowledged that hunters were concerned at first that the urge to protect the woodpecker's habitat would limit access to hunting areas, but he said this has not happened.

Game officials want to avoid what Henderson called a "spotted owl situation" -- the clash of interests that occurred in the 1980s between wildlife preservationists and loggers in the U.S. northwest over protecting the small bird.