Black-Backed Woodpecker, a 1400 Acre Project, and Species Viability

Note: the map above can be found in the final EA for the Angora project.

CA initiates state protection for rare woodpecker

By SCOTT SONNER, Associated Press

Monday, December 26, 2011

(12-26) 02:44 PST South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (AP) —

Over the objections of the U.S. Forest Service, wildlife officials in California are taking steps at the state level to protect a rare woodpecker partly because the federal agency won’t stop logging the bird’s ever-shrinking habitat in burned stands of national forests in the Sierra Nevada.

The California State Fish and Game Commission recently voted to add the black-backed woodpecker to the list of species that are candidates for protection under the California Endangered Species Act, launching a year-long status review of the bird that is at the center of an ongoing legal battle in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over salvage logging in the area where 250 homes burned near Lake Tahoe in 2007.

Commissioner Michael Sutton said he’s satisfied there is a “substantial possibility” the woodpecker could end up being listed as threatened. He said his support for the move was based in part on correspondence from the Forest Service indicating the agency doesn’t believe the bird needs any protection and that even if it did, USFS wouldn’t be required to provide it.

The Forest Service had designated the black-backed as the indicator species for all fish and wildlife dependent on burned forests across the Sierra, from north of Tahoe to south of Yosemite. It’s the same kind of designation agency biologists gave the northern spotted owl in the 1980s to serve as a barometer of the overall health of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

But, said Sutton, it has become clear “their management policy has changed recently. They now permit, under relevant forest management plans, 100 percent salvage logging of burned areas, which is the preferred habitat of this species.

“That may be fine for the Forest Service,” said Sutton, after moving to add the woodpecker to the state’s list of candidate species on Dec. 15. “Their mandate is multiple-use, including timber harvest… Our mandate is stewardship of wildlife.”

Commissioner Daniel Richards was the lone dissenter in the 3-1 vote advancing the listing petition by the Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project in Cedar Ridge, Calif.

“I do believe it is a rare species, but that doesn’t make it is endangered. It has been rare forever,” Richards said. “We get these every month. Everybody would like for us to list everything as endangered … to burden our department with further analysis.”

Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, said the action was significant because “they are acknowledging that not only is there a total lack of protection from clear cutting on private lands, they (the woodpeckers) also don’t have any protections on Forest Service land to fall back on.”

“It’s the first time anybody has acknowledged that a species is impacted by post-fire salvage logging,” added Justine Augustine, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity based in San Francisco. “They accepted the fact there is substantial evidence there is a problem here and we’re going to have to step in.”

Hanson, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Davis, helped persuade the Forest Service in recent years to designate the black-backed woodpecker the indicator species for all wildlife dependent on burned forests throughout the Sierra and has been citing the agency’s own research for years in his bid to show the bird may already be on its way to extinction.

“Even in burned forests, the black-backed is one of the rarest birds in California,” he said, adding there is “no dispute its habitat has declined dramatically since the 19th and early 20th century due to fire suppression.”

As a result, such post-fire habitat now comprises less than one-half of 1 percent of the Sierra forests the woodpecker once inhabited, he said.

But Forest Service officials say there is no evidence that the bird’s population itself is actually in a state of decline. While Hanson maintains there may be as few as 1,000 pairs of black-backs left in the Sierras, the agency believes there are many more.

Randall Moore, Pacific Southwest regional boss for the Forest Service based in Vallejo, presented the state commission earlier this year with a 16-page memo questioning the “degree and immediacy” of the threat to the black-backed from Forest Service practices. He said more information was needed, and that “management of National Forest System lands is inherently complex given the responsibility to manage public natural resources for a wide variety of often conflicting threats and opportunities.”

Halting or significantly restricting fire suppression activities — even away from homes — the memo noted, is “unlikely to be implementable due to social and political resistance.”

Augustine said it was “inappropriate, at best” for the Forest Service to imply the state should change its findings to accommodate the Forest Services'”complex” management. He said the wildlife commission’s decision will help put the spotlight on the service’s new legal stance that even if the bird did warrant added protection, the agency no longer is required to provide it.

The agency was long bound by the National Forest Management Act, which President Reagan signed into law in 1982, which established the so-called “viability rule.” It stipulated that the Forest Service would attempt to maintain a viable population of all species found on individual forests. But the Forest Service says the rule is super-ceded by the 2007 forest plan amendment, which, still provides general guidelines for protection of fish and wildlife. But, according to the agency’s interpretation, it does not prohibit projects such as salvage logging just because the potential impact to a particular species’ habitat could threaten the sustainability of its population on that individual national forest.

Hanson said the change in position represents a “significant threat of extinction to a number of species in the coming decades. It is an outrageous and dangerous position for the agency to take, and I think it had an impact on the commission’s decision.”

The issue will be front and center in late January or February when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the same two environmental groups’ appeal challenging a federal court’s refusal to halt the logging at Lake Tahoe.

The Forest Service maintains it met all the law’s requirements for the Angora fire project, intended to speed restoration of the burned area as well reduce future fire threats over nearly 3,000 acres. The agency said it was made clear in the environmental assessment that its proposed action could reduce potential black-backed woodpecker territories, and that was its “only project-level analytical duty.'”

Given the federal agency’s position, Hanson said, state protection of the bird may be its only hope.

“Basically what the commission did is stand up for the science on this species,” he said. “I know it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to go through with a listing a year from now, but they did the right thing here.”

Note from Sharon: In the first sentence, the author characterizes the FS response as “won’t stop logging” “its ever shrinking habitat”. If the idea is that every snag everywhere should be left because the bird is so endangered, then that bodes problems when snags fall down. Also, if more fires are likely to result from climate change, then won’t there be more habitat?

Also “They now permit, under relevant forest management plans, 100 percent salvage logging of burned areas, which is the preferred habitat of this species.” But species don’t know what’s permitted; they only react to what’s accomplished and it seems unlikely that anywhere near 100 percent would be even attempted.

Here and here are links to previous discussions of the Angora project on this blog. It appears that 1398 acres of the 2700 FS acres would be treated under the preferred alternative. Based on fuel loading and proximity to houses.. given different fuels and no proximity to houses (the project is in the WUI defense zone), as in large parts of the Sierra Nevada, one might expect lower percentages of snag removal than that.

17 thoughts on “Black-Backed Woodpecker, a 1400 Acre Project, and Species Viability”

  1. I’m a big fan of irony. “But Forest Service officials say there is no evidence that the bird’s population itself is actually in a state of decline. While Hanson maintains there may be as few as 1,000 pairs of black-backs left in the Sierras, the agency believes there are many more.”

    The Forest Service doesn’t want to monitor wildlife populations and doesn’t want to base its decisions on population numbers. The agency’s oft-repeated position is that it manages habitat only.

    Except, of course, when the population numbers favor the Forest Service’s position.

  2. Regarding the note that snags fall down, isn’t that why wildlife biologists advocate to leave them standing? To ensure some snags are available across the planning area for species such as the black-backed woodpecker when other snags inevitably fall by natural means? Snags falling naturally is not the problem. The problem is the unnatural depletion of standing snags leaving no alternative habitat for cavity-nesters.

  3. I have talked with a professional forest manager in the Tahoe area(not employed by the Forest Service) and got the folowing response to your article of California’s Fish and Game Commission decision about burned trees and the woodpecker.

    “There has not been any post-fire project that proposed 100 percentsalvage logging of burned area as suggested by Sutton. Forest Service salvage proposals always include the leaving of more than enough snags, down logs,etc. to satisfy the needs of wildlife, including the Black Backed Woodpecker.

    My reading of the research literature indicatesthe number of burned trees per acre that constitutes their optimum habitat is quite small and easily met. In addition research studies have shown that burned tree habitat of this type is only effective for the bird for a few years, and due to the territoriality of the birds a large burned area actually supports a limited number of of pairs.

    In reality there is far more than enough habitat being created for the BBW by the trend to increasing burned acres.”


      This picture from the early 90’s, at the north shore of Lake Tahoe, shows that there should have been a population explosion of BBW’s. Yes, they DO use all kinds of snags, especially when they are in such quantities. Face it. We are more “snag rich” than we have EVER been, since the glaciers dominated. We certainly have a LOT more snags than during the Lewis and Clark days. Ya know, birds have wigs and can fly to their next meal!

      The territoriality thing has always bugged me, as applied to “bird circles”. Additionally, some of those birds, like the goshawk and the spotted owls, share the same nesting and foraging habitats. We could do better by enhancing and actually “creating” new habitat where it once was, historically. In the low Sierra Nevada foothills, you can see remnant stands of old growth ponderosa pines at about the 1000 foot elevation. Those patches could, one day, support a nesting pair of goshawks or spotted owls.

  4. I guess my point is that it isn’t really clear how much of this is about this particular 1400 acres and how much is about general conditions across the Sierra. It seems like in general, there are many fires, in many places far from people, and not much salvaging going on.

    Which should leave many opportunities for snags across space and time. It might be possible to get estimates of these two things (#1 acres of burned areas), (#2 number of acres with snags removed) , (#3 for each acre in number two, number of snags per acre left).

    Until we know that, I don’t think we know how critical this particular 1400 acres is for a given period of time.

  5. More goofy management by courtroom lawyers and their enablers (ignorant Enviros, politicians, opportunistic “ecologists,” and American taxpayers).

    There are probably more burned snags in the western US than at anytime during the past 10,000 years. Why haven’t these woodpeckers irrupted if these peckerheads know what they’re talking about? “Stopping logging” didn’t seem to affect spotted hoot owl numbers; why should we expect a different result with woodpeckers? Hoot owl numbers in the Northwest ARE increasing rapidly, though — and possibly due to tree planting and no logging in the Dust Bowl 80 years ago.

    Are spotted hoot owls and barred hoot owls the same species, just because they can (and do) breed and produce viable offspring (meaning that they are not endangered at all)? Or is this yet another example of “survival of the fittest,” where barred hoot owls are adapting better to their new environment than their spotted cousins? Are these people arguing that we need to re-define species to better meet the dictates of courtroom decisions, or are they trying to stop evolution entirely for some reason? And what do they think about Pygmies and Swedes in those regards?

    When is the public going to get wise to this charade and begin demanding better justification for these highly speculative claims that active management of our forests will directly result in the extinction of flying birds, swimming fish, and wolves that can cover hundreds of miles in a month? This isn’t science, or even science fiction, it’s politics.

    Sharon, this is exactly why “forest history” is so important to today’s planners. Computer gamers are simply constructing “models” that tell them what they want to hear by simply adjusting their numbers and equations representing fabricated past conditions and populations — and then calling themselves “scientists.” These people need a good dose of Kat Anderson, Tom Bonnicksen, and Charles Kay — there are way (way) more burned snags in southern Cal and Nevada now than at any other time in history. There should be a lot more woodpeckers, too, if these people are correct.

    Hanson said the change in position represents a “significant threat of extinction to a number of species in the coming decades. It is an outrageous and dangerous position for the agency to take, and I think it had an impact on the commission’s decision.” If anything is “outrageous and dangerous,” it’s letting people like Chad Hanson take control of our land and resources. We let experts pilot our jets and prescribe medications; why can’t we let experienced and knowledgeable individuals manage our forests and grasslands?

    How did this (really) happen? When are we going to learn? 1400 acres. Or the entire Sierra Nevadas. Same difference. This is nuts. Somebody needs to shine a strong light on these obstructionists and their claims. We need a return to the active management of our forest resources; a process that has been “sustainable” for more than 10,000 years.

  6. Bob- I agree with you that quantified assumptions are still assumptions.. that’s why sensitivity analysis should be so important to modeling. And that modeling without empirical verification should not receive the same “it’s science!” claim as empirical studies.

    I am hoping that this blog (in its humble way) will shine perhaps not a “strong” light but at least “some” light 😉 on some of these claims. I don’t know the right answer in terms of what is the best social and environmental solution for any given issue; but I find it unlikely that we can reach the right answer without open discussion of specific claims from those who agree and those who don’t.

  7. Once again we see another writer fall to the fast-talking and charismatic man that the Sierra Club deemed “too extreme”. The bird is yet another tool in his Quixotic Quest to end ALL timber sales on ALL lands. In court, he pushed the idea that even roadside snags were “habitat”, and should be protected. Some of the “Doctor’s” friends in the media have deserted him but, he always seems to corral another pet rhetoric publisher to print his extreme view of preservationism. He also continues to claim an association with UC- Davis but, the University consistently distances themselves from Hanson. He has also shutdown Quincy Library Group Collaborative projects and sued against projects that strictly harvest hazardous trees within wildfire perimeters. AND, did I mention his wife is an eco-lawyer?!?!?

    My last fire salvage project included 55% of the burned area. Within the project were numerous exclusions, including streambuffers, steep ground and wildlife zones. Also within the project area were stands of green trees. Also within the cutting units were untouched snag patches, set aside solely for cavity nesters and other wildlife. Hanson has friends in the Ninth Circuit Court.

    I was as much of a salvage logging expert you will find, spending most of my career doing bug and fire salvage, as well as blowdown. I’ve seen the evolution of Forest Service salvage logging, turned into complex “snag-thinning” and rehabilitation fuels reductions. I would propose including entire burned areas, including Wilderness into project plans, as a useful part of the study area. I would even put a buffer zone of additional insect mortality into project boundaries, utilizing that as a future snag zone. I’ve seen many examples of bugs attacking trees over the firelines.

  8. The Forest Service had THE perfect chance to address salvage logging, on a nationwide basis, in the new Planning Rule. Clearly, they didn’t want another contentious issue dragging the new Rule down. Pretending that the new Rule is a comprehensive response to “climate change” without a solid salvage policy is lunacy and deceit. The “best available science” says that re-burns affect “climate change” far more than people realize. When soils are so severely baked, losing soil carbon and nitrogen, with increased soil densities and lowered water-holding capacity, the soils can no longer support the previous levels of carbon sequestration.

  9. Foto, to me that depends on 1) how hot the original fire was, 2) how many and what size trees are left (will that amount of loading lead to an intense burn at the soil level?), 3) is there too much fuel left so that the soil may be negatively impacted with the next fire or that it may be difficult to protect WUI areas? 4) are there any mills that can make money off salvage?

    If the fire was too hot originally, it may already be baked. I just don’t see a substitute for a local specific rationale on each site. I don’t know what a planning rule could do that would be useful to this except a general affirmation that it’s a choice, which we know anyway. but maybe I am being unimaginative?

  10. I think that a statement saying that modern salvage logging is a preferred wildfire rehabilitation pathway, based on the best available science, and will be used where environmentally appropriate. Courts could not ignore such a proclamation in litigation against the many, many wildfires on our horizons. A package of salvage guidelines for each region could make salvage efforts (more) “right-sized” and “appropriate”. Few are looking to close ALL the loopholes on salvage projects but, trying to paint the woodpecker as “going extinct”, and wanting to manage ALL forests specifically for a bird not even listed as endangered seems a bit “extreme” to me.

    The real danger to soils comes when the unsalvaged snags fall down and other flashy fuels are coming up. I think my Yosemite example suffices for that very well. The unsalvaged parts of the Silver Fire burned the hottest in the Biscuit Fire. The Lake Tahoe Basin continues to be at extreme risk from trees that died in the early 90’s. The fuels are still there, needing another several decades to start decomposing. Alas, the human-enhanced fire return interval is a LOT less than that!

  11. I agree with Fotoware on this. Salvage logging should be a preferred alternative, determined as quickly as possible, following a major wildfire, bug-kill, or other stand replacement event. Industry and the USFS took about 72 hours to come up with some basic guidelines on Columbus Day Storm blowdown in the early 1960s, and the Warm Springs Reservation is often salvaging wildfire damage within days, while dead trees on adjacent USFS lands are left to rot or reburn.

    Second, it is the reburns — after fuels have fallen to forest floors — that usually cause the most damage to soils, not crown fires.

    Protecting old-growth (“200 year old, or older, trees”) through high-priority logging projects and salvage logging following a stand replacement event should be cornerstones to getting our forests and rural economies back in shape.

  12. If man does it, it’s evil. If nature does it, it’s beautifull. If logging creates sediment, it’s called evil. If wildfire creates sediment, it’s called a functioning ecosystem. If logging creates sediment, the 9th circus rules against it. If wildfire creates sediment, the 9th is silent. That paradox is the dark matter of the forestry debate.

    • Derek:

      I am in total agreement. The entire management debate can be characterized as: “are people part of nature, or apart from nature?”

      Those that see us as a keystone — or at least indicator — species, and a natural part of a “functioning ecosystem” (whatever that is), tend to believe in active management. That is, we are responsible for the health of our forests and realize they must be tended and cared for in order to derive desired benefits and results.

      Those that see us as, essentially, pathogens in the forest prefer passive management approaches that let “nature” (non-humans) do whatever it wants; ideally, without human involvement or human presence.

      I’m in the “human as part of nature” crowd, and see recent attempts to exclude people from forests and grasslands as massive, proven failures, with the evidence being present wherever we look.

  13. There are some things that can be done to get salvage projects started and substantially completed. Realizing that probably the only chance to get work done will be under the lower court’s decision, time could be saved by crafting documents quickly, not worrying about satisfying, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court. Projects need to only survive injunctions and lower court decisions, from local courts. Timing on decisions and work season are important, in order to hit the ground running. Once any injunctions are passed, work has to proceed at a frenzied pace, in order to make any future appeal to a higher court rendered “moot”. The priority of on-the-ground work is tree felling. Landings may also need to be constructed, as soon as possible. Hazard tree removal is probably better to keep apart, in a different project, to keep the safety issue at the forefront, and less vulnerable to litigation.

    As the case first goes into a local court, and the injunction is denied. The Feds should use all the stalling tactics it can, to fully educate and convince the local judge of the scientific wisdom of the project, in intricate, understandable and time-consuming detail. Be sure to include a comprehensive analysis of the “No Treatment Alternative”, including ALL the impacts of the plaintiff’s preferences. Once the Forest Service wins in local court, the loggers will have until the end of the fall to “substantially complete” key parts of the project.

    This approach could be used to at least get SOME work done after a wildfire or bark beetle infestation. While the practice may not be what is most “Democratic”, in the sense of idealistic politico-utopia but, it is not really much different than the dirty tricks used by eco-lawyers. They would be “following the law”, as decided by the lower court, and the consensus of Forest Service specialists.

    • Fotoware: Actually, this strategy is a lot different than the “dirty tricks used by eco-lawyers.” For one, it is clearly and honestly presented at face value. Second, it is a localized strategy whereby cooperating local businesses, resource managers, residents, and courts share a similar perspective. Third, it is scientifically sound and biologically defensible.

      Question: How to identify the log buyers, salvage sales specialists, lawyers, and businesses associated with each NF that would be willing to participate in such an effort?


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