Management Techniques For The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker On Federal Lands

Sean Fraser

NRM 304


The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) has been listed as an endangered
species since October, 1970. This species inhabits pine forests in the
southeastern United States where the majority of prime timberland is privately
owned. Private ownership of preferred habitat and historically destructive
silvicultural practices create unique problems for federal wildlife managers.
This report analyzes three management techniques being used to assess and
augment red-cockaded woodpecker populations on federal lands in the region,
primarily military installations. Seeking cooperation between diverse
government agencies, wildlife managers attempt to accurately assess species
abundance, alter woodpecker nesting cavities, and construct nest sites in an
effort to enhance red-cockaded woodpecker habitat on limited federal holdings in
the American southeast.

Key words: Picoides borealis, Global Positioning System, Geographic Information
System, cavity trees, cavity restrictors

The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is an endangered species
that inhabits pine forests in an historical range from Texas to the Atlantic
coast (Jackson, 1986; Reed et al., 1988). Picoides borealis nest in clans or
family groups that usually consist of one breeding pair and 2 non-breeding male
helpers (Jackson, 1986 ). This group establishes and defends a territory that
includes foraging habitat and nesting "cavity trees" (Copeyon et al., 1991;
Jackson et al., 1986; Rossell and Gorsira, 1996). Red-cockaded woodpecker
clans excavate cavities in living pines, and have established a living and
foraging routine in conjunction with the southeastern pine forests and the
historical occurrence of fire, which reduces hardwood understory while sparing
fire-resistant pines (Jackson, 1986). Much of the prime nesting and foraging
habitat for this species has been systematically eliminated due to development,
timber harvest and intensive fire suppression (Jackson, 1986). The emergence
of dense hardwood understory and midstory as a result of fire suppression in
red-cockaded woodpecker habitat has resulted in the abandonment of many
otherwise undisturbed areas (Jackson, 1986; Kelly et al., 1993).
The red-cockaded woodpecker has been listed as endangered since 1970
(Federal Register, 1970 as cited by Ertep and Lee, 1994). Four requirements
for sustained red-cockaded woodpecker populations that are lacking in the
species historical range are identified as critical to species stabilization and
recovery: 1.) Open pine forests with shade tolerant understory controlled by
cyclical fire seasons; 2.) Old growth Pinus palustrus aged > 95 years and Pinus
taeda aged > 75 years; 3.) Approximately 200 acres for nesting group or clan;
4.) Multiple clans per area to maintain genetic stability and variability
(Jackson, 1986). The opportunity to establish or preserve these habitat
qualities on private timberland is largely lost due to historical harvest
practices and development, and research on expanding populations on federal
holdings is the most vital component in red-cockaded woodpecker stabilization
and recovery (Jackson et al., 1979a; Jackson, 1986). Exacerbating the problem
of habitat loss due to encroachment and fire-suppression are natural hazards
such as hurricanes, pine-beetle infestations and usurpation of red-cockaded
woodpecker cavities by other species (Carter et al., 1989; Rossell and Gorsira,
1996). Effects of historically natural hazards are multiplied in the context
of a diminished species abundance (Carter et al., 1989; Jackson, 1986).
Land management for wildlife is subject to unique difficulties in the
Southeast, as the majority of forested land is privately owned (Jackson, 1986).
In western states, approximately 2/3 of undeveloped land is federally
administered, making the enactment of widespread management policies feasible,
and controversies are apt to center around questions of access and use, rather
than the more difficult problems concerned with private property rights.

This report will focus on the current techniques being explored and
enacted to stabilize and increase red-cockaded woodpecker populations on federal
lands throughout its previous range. Three areas of concern regarding the red-
cockaded woodpecker populations on federal lands interact to define current
management practices (Jackson, 1986). Wildlife biologists, foresters, and the
military have tested and combined specific techniques involving habitat
assessment and identification, cavity alteration, and cavity construction to
manage limited habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker on federally administered
land (Carter et al., 1989; Copeyon, 1990; Ertep and Lee, 1994). Analysis
of specific studies and practices in these three areas serve as a description of
the technique for managing limited federal lands for the enhancement and
stabilization of red-cockaded woodpecker populations.


A significant problem associated with the management of red-cockaded
woodpecker populations is obtaining an accurate assessment of habitat
availability and home range estimates (Ertep and Lee, 1994; Reed et al.,
1988). Differences in habitat quality and availability throughout the range of
the red-cockaded woodpecker affect population density and the range of foraging
and nesting activities within colonies, making general application of population
estimators difficult (Reed et al., 1988). This issue was addressed in 1988
during a