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Fewer wildfires leading to fewer black-backed woodpeckers

Yesterday, I was speaking to someone who said birds are excellent barometers of the health of certain area because as birds go, so goes the environment (and vice versa).

Perfect evidence to back up this sentiment appeared Wednesday when four conservation groups filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Interior to get the black-backed woodpecker added on the list of endangered species, according to an article by the Associated Press. Two of the biggest culprits for the alarming decline of the species that has thrived for millions of years is an overall decrease in wildfires and the lack of protection of recently burned areas.

Even though it’s logical to think the human-conceived notion that clearing away potentially flammable brush in a forest or quickly salvaging burnt trees afterward is helpful to the environment, the ramifications are negative and very real.

It seems like a forest might suffer a great blow when a natural fire passes through, but it’s beneficial in many ways. For example, fires stimulate certain plants to germinate, open up landscapes, get rid of old brush and cause insect outbreaks. Due to this, one of the indicators of the health of post-fire habitats in the West is the black-backed woodpecker.

It’s survived thousands of years in North America by eating beetle larvae found in freshly burnt trees. The once thriving species is now rare in states like California, Oregon and South Dakota with an estimated 1,400 or fewer pairs in those areas.

By urging the government to put the three-toed woodpecker on the list of endangered species, the conservation groups are using it as a symbol and tangible measure of the health of these environments.

According to the article mentioned earlier, this petition is the first to acknowledge “the ecological significance and seek protection of post-fire habitat.” Currently, post-fire salvage logging companies quickly enter areas recently decimated by fires, which suppresses and removes prime woodpecker habitats.

Here is a key quote from a release by the Center for Biological Diversity:

The woodpecker populations, in Oregon’s eastern Cascades and California’s Sierra Nevada mountains as well as the Black Hills of South Dakota, need “snag forest habitat” to thrive — large areas of dense, old conifer forest that have recently experienced high levels of natural tree mortality from wildland fire or native bark beetles. Such forests contain numerous standing dead trees, known as snags, which the woodpeckers rely upon for nesting and their favorite food, beetle larvae. A common misperception is that snag forests have no value for wildlife when, in fact, many animals depend on them to survive.

“Current science tells us that ‘snag forest habitat’ created by fire and native beetles is not only perfectly natural but is also one of the most species-rich and ecologically important habitat types in our western conifer forests,” said Dr. Chad Hanson, an ecologist and black-backed woodpecker expert living in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. “Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has utterly failed to provide protections for this habitat, causing species dependent upon it, like the black-backed woodpecker, to become very rare and threatened due to logging, fire suppression and landscape-level forest thinning.”

One thing is worry about is whether the black-backed woodpecker will suffer the same fate as the northern spotted owl, a bird that’s been wallowing on the endangered species list for decades despite stalwart efforts to save it.

Regardless of what happens, by adding the black-backed woodpecker to the list of endangered species, it’s a step toward protecting these rich and important post-fire habitats. Check out the full petition here.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.