The Rare Black-Backed Woodpecker Needs Your Help

Part 4 in a series:

Don’t log or replant the Rim Fire burned area

Monica Bond and Richard L. Hutto
Published 4:54 pm, Tuesday, December 17, 2013
  • FILE - In this July 6, 2010 file photo, a rare black-backed woodpecker is seen in the burned remains of the Angora Fire near South Lake Tahoe, Calif.  Conservationists are seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the rare woodpecker that feeds on beetles in burned forests. Four groups filed the listing petition Wednesday, May 2, 2012, for the black-backed woodpecker in the Black Hills, the Sierra Nevada and Eastern Cascades of Oregon. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File) Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
    FILE – In this July 6, 2010 file photo, a rare black-backed woodpecker is seen in the burned remains of the Angora Fire near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Conservationists are seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the rare woodpecker that feeds on beetles in burned forests. Four groups filed the listing petition Wednesday, May 2, 2012, for the black-backed woodpecker in the Black Hills, the Sierra Nevada and Eastern Cascades of Oregon. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File) Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
Hardly anyone rejoices when they hear of a catastrophic fire raging through a forest. And yet the fact is that the hottest, most severe fire is as ecologically necessary and beneficial for Western forests as rainfall or sunlight. The announcement Dec. 6 by the Stanislaus National Forest that it plans to plans to conduct clear-cut logging and artificially replant the Rim Fire burn area near Yosemite is predictable, but ignores the fact that severely burned forests are living, thriving habitats that always have been a natural part of Western forest ecosystems.

Anyone having the opportunity to experience a severely burned forest like the Rim Fire is blessed with a cacophony of birdsong, the hum of insects, and a wildflower and pollinator show like nowhere else on the planet. Where else to harvest a fire morel or to see fire moss? Fire-killed trees attract legions of insects that flourish in the wood beneath the charcoal bark and in the new shrubs and flowers. Many bird species seek out severely burned forests specifically for this rich insect food source. One species in particular, the black-backed woodpecker, is found in vastly greater numbers in severely burned than in unburned forests.

Along with other woodpecker species, black-backs excavate their nest holes in the dead trees, which then provide nesting sites for other animals that can’t make their own nest cavities. The species is the best-adapted woodpecker in the world for extracting beetle larvae from fire-killed trees, and has become an icon for the ecological importance of severely burned forests.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to dispel the myth that forest fires are nothing but bad. And the myth perpetuates expensive, ecologically damaging and unnecessary fire suppression and logging (all funded by taxpayers, of course) in places far from where fire threatens human lives and property.

It’s time for the media to provide an ecologically literate perspective on forest fires. Forest “restoration” after severe fire is completely unnecessary because severe fire itself restores habitat for fire-dependent species. More to the point here, post-fire salvage logging – an activity perpetuated by fire hysteria, and demanded by House resolutions 1526 and 3188 – always inflicts serious ecological damage to the forest system, as dozens upon dozens of studies have shown. We encourage everyone to visit the Rim Fire area and see for themselves the transformative power of severe fire and nature’s exuberant response.

We need to look at the science, rather than listening to outdated and sometimes self-serving myths about the villainy of forest fire. Severe fires create an important and rare habitat – one that we should celebrate and protect. This will only happen if enough people learn the truth and speak out in its defense.

What you can do

— Write or call the U.S. Forest Service to ask foresters to leave the Rim Fire area near Yosemite unlogged and natural.

— Write or call your congressional representative to say you support the 250 forest scientists who signed a letter opposing any new legislation, such as HR1526 or 3188, which would harm these unique burned-forest systems. To read the text of the letter, go to

Monica L. Bond, a wildlife biologist, is a principal scientist with the Wild Nature Institute. Richard L. Hutto is a professor of biology and wildlife biology at the University of Montana.

5 thoughts on “The Rare Black-Backed Woodpecker Needs Your Help”

  1. The blackbacked woodpecker is abundant from coast to coast in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. In the U.S., their habitat is vestigial, and at the far southern reaches of their core habitat. The Sierras are a sac like southerly extension, from the east side drier forests of the Cascades and down the west side of the Sierras. Another appendix of habitat is found in the Black Hills of western SoDak. Those habitats are isolated by geography, not human disturbance.

    If you read the biology, the decay of dead understory and dominant trees in older forests works well as sustaining habitat. Post burn habitat is short lived, at best, and the bird is better served by the plethora of preserved older forests. Patterned institutional neglect and endless litigation has resulted in an ever acceleration of old forests lost to fire. When that sustaining habitat is burned, where will the habitat be for the bird until trees grow to size enough that they might become sustaining habitat, or as a result of another fire, temporal habitat? Fuels management is essential to sustained blackbacked woodpecker habitat.

    There will be fire enough, I am afraid, to take quite good care of blackbacked woodpeckers. Using them as surrogates is an aging tactic to which judges are becoming jaded in their acceptance of the concept. The bird can’t be a surrogate for old growth and a surrogate for stand replacement fire, all at the same time. But it does use both habitats.

    There a multitude of factors to be considered, and using the existence of a rather common bird to stop management activity is mostly an indication a dearth of good reasons to stop efforts to have green forests instead of black ones. How about some new ideas, concepts, ways to keep our forests? Is there even a hint that some logging will make a quantum difference in the availability of host trees for woodpecker use for foraging, security, or nesting? Is logging even proposed for 5% of the burned timber by volume or acres?

    This blackbacked woodpecker surrogacy is more about the undertaker than it is the pediatrician. I want life in the forests and carbon being stored. Haven’t we had smoke enough? Green house gases enough from fire? What about proactive management do you find that is contrary to the human condition? Impacting forests is what we do, and have done for millennia. Humans are as much about forests as all other life is. I would proffer that only genocide can change forests, and we have proven that. It is time we diverge from human management into forest management. Allow the management agencies to operate, to do their work.

  2. Of course, there is this little fact about the vastness of acreage, burned within Yosemite National Park, which could support 1,000’s of these birds, if there were that many within 100 miles. Additionally, the Yosemite forest is MUCH better habitat than on Forest Service lands. Besides, that habitat would be contiguous, vast and immune from human impacts. Remember, these dead trees are only useful to the BBW’s for a maximum of 6 years, and they have a life span of 8 years.

    I REALLY doubt that they will be clearcutting the salvage. That hasn’t been commonly done on Forest Service lands in salvage projects (not including hazard tree projects) for 25 years! Even in 1972, they were “leaving a few trees for wildlife” in each cutting unit. I was there in 1972, on a school field trip, seeing the devastation of intense wildfires, and the severe salvage practices. I was there in 2000, when I was flagging plantation units, to be thinned. Here is what the Granite Fire (1971) looked like, with various different examples of stands that resulted.,-119.958451&spn=0.007576,0.016512&t=h&z=17

    The middle was mostly “left to recover on its own”, with ultra-thick brush, like manzanita and whitethorn squelching the development of forests. This being a ridgetop area, I guess it is likely that it was brush before 1971. I’d also have to assume that it was planted where harvesting and site prep occurred, as well. The surrounding plantations were mostly thinned, quite recently. It looks like the thinning was very clean, and done with fire resilience in mind. Looking at the BAER map for fire intensity, these plantations had low burn intensity, with some mortality. The brushy areas burned at moderate intensity, surely adding to the mortality in the trees. Ideally, the RD should have done some prescribed burning in that 40 year old brushfield. You can also see a few unthinned plantations, possibly left that way for wildlife shielding. I’ll bet those burned moderately, too.

    The jury is still out on whether recoveries from previous large fires, within the Rim Fire, were effective. That is what Bob and I seek to document, before salvage logging begins. Our startup window is diminishing, as I could be setting up photo points today, with warmer air melting the lower elevation snow. I really think this could be a part of that monitoring thing, being discussed in another thread. If we miss the baseline images, then we won’t be learning some pretty specific valuable things. Sure, the Forest probably has new aerial photos but, they cannot be easily turned into “repeat photography”.

    The Sierra Nevada Conservancy just received a million bucks for promoting water quality within the Rim Fire. Does anyone have any experience or contacts with them?

    Check out this page about fuel treatment effectiveness, too!

  3. Whether or not the rim fire should be salvaged is another issue but I think that even if it happens, there will be plenty enough dead tree habitat for them outside salvage areas. And if the FS goes through with salvage in the ways I have seen over the last decade, there will be plenty of snags left in riparian areas and the many patches that will see no logging.

    Out of the huge burn area, the salvage portion will account for but a very small percentage, hardly a threat to BBWP.

    On the other hand, I have mostly seen salvage in NWFP areas so who knows what it will actually look like on the landscape in RIm fire.

  4. Re: photo points and “repeat photography”. Here’s a note from the FIA headquarters
    “FIA takes photos of permanent plots in the interior west where forests are more open. Taking photos of plots is not done in the east where forests are dense and there is greater difficulty in demonstrating that order can be sorted from clutter of dense foliage. It’s something we can consider adding if the use and value can be clearly demonstrated. Thanks for the suggestion.” You might want to check this out with Greg Reams, FIA project leader.

    • Thanks, Mac: That is a key point of our proposal — to clearly demonstrate the use and value of photo points and repeat photography by transparently sharing that information with the general public so EVERYONE can help in the application and evaluation of this process. Now to find an agency or organization that actually wants to test this concept . . .

      I’ll follow up on the Greg Reams lead to see what he thinks about this.


Leave a Comment