Of Woodpeckers and Salvage Harvests

New Rocky Mountain Research Station publication of interest, “Of Woodpeckers and Harvests: Finding Compatibility Between
Habitat and Salvage Logging.” Not online yet, but linked here in our library.

The line from one of the researchers sums it up: “[T]“he logging treatments essentially accelerated the habitat conditions some woodpecker species prefer while not compromising the habitat needs of others.”


23 thoughts on “Of Woodpeckers and Salvage Harvests”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Steve! Designing research to answer management/public questions/concerns is a great thing to do. Unfortunately it is not easy to get funding for that kind of work because of the way the Science Funding Establishment operates.

    Their funding:

    “included the Joint Fire Science Program and the National Fire Plan, along with several individual National Forests.”

    In an ideal world, IMHO, at least some research funding would be targeted directly to prioritized questions of manager (so that forests wouldn’t have to support it). Perhaps there needs to be a JFSP equivalent for other forest topics.

  2. My many salvage projects ended up with more snags than they were designed for, due to increased die-off and beetle activity, as well as cambium damage. Marking guidelines in Region 5 have been accepted by the courts, along with snag retention guidelines.

  3. That line is not from a researcher, and the doc also states:

    With flying insects as their preferred prey,
    Lewis’s woodpeckers nest in areas of high
    burn severity, resulting in open habitat that
    allows for aerial capture of insects. They favor
    nesting in large diameter snags (> 20” DBH).
    Wildfires release nutrients into the soil, which
    increases shrub development and associated
    flying insects. Salvage prescriptions that
    retain large diameter (> 20” DBH) snags and
    reduce densities of smaller snags (9–15”
    DBH) are expected to be compatible with
    Lewis’s woodpecker (photo: T. Kogut and
    USDA Forest Service).

    White-headed woodpeckers principally
    use burned forests for nest placement,
    while foraging in nearby live trees. Mixedseverity fires that result in a mosaic of
    burned and unburned areas provide the
    postfire conditions favored by white-headed
    woodpeckers. White-headed woodpeckers
    typically nest in moderate diameter snags
    (12–20” DBH) while foraging in larger
    diameter (> 20” DBH) live trees. Salvage
    prescriptions that retain the highest densities
    of moderate diameter snags (12–15” DBH)
    are expected to be compatible with whiteheaded woodpecker (photo: T. Kogut).

    Black-backed woodpeckers nest in areas
    that experience high-severity burns, with high
    densities of relatively smaller diameter trees (>
    9–15” DBH). High densities of burned snags
    provide substrate for a high concentration of
    wood-boring beetles, which are this species’
    preferred food choice. Therefore, burned
    forests with no logging are most favored by
    this species
    (photo: USDA Forest Service).

    • Thanks for the additional information and context ‘anon.’

      Also, thanks for point out that the line in the original blog post that Steve Wilent attributed to “one of the researchers” actually was not from one of the researchers at all. The line was an opinion expressed by Mark Webb, the executive director of Blue Mountains Forest Partners.

    • There aren’t enough pairs of BBW’s to fill up all that “habitat”. It is routine for only half (or much less) of the fire being salvaged, and always with snag requirements in the cutting units, themselves. I highly doubt that pairs are being denied habitat, through Forest Service salvage projects. Most salvage projects exclude the exact type of habitat they desire; “high densities of relatively smaller diameter trees (>9–15” DBH).”

      The claims of salvage clearcuts in Sierra Nevada National Forests are myths. I challenge anyone to provide an official salvage project map with clearcut units on it.

  4. Vicky Saab has done great research, but the more central management implications of her results were not captured here. Specifically, salvage logging is entirely incompatible with the needs of the most fire-dependent species included here–the black-backed woodpecker. It (and numerous other species, as has been discussed in many publications) needs severely burned and unharvested forest to do well. Just look at the map of BBWO habitat suitability and fire severity on page 6–they fit like a glove! So, what’s the solution? The only way to maintain habitat for truly fire-dependent species while providing economic support for the local community is to leave the burned forests alone and concentrate timber harvests on green-tree forests along roadsides and immediately adjacent to communities, where such harvests do not compromise the integrity of an entire disturbance-dependent plant and animal community. In short, landscape-level planning would place low-level, sustainable harvests outside burned forests and toward places where they do not compromise the ecological integrity of our disturbance-dependent western conifer forests.

    • In most cases, a very small percentage of a burned area is salvage logged. The Rim Fire burned 257,314 acres. As I recall, about 6% of the area was salvaged. That leaves nearly 232,000 acres untouched by chainsaws.

      • Steve, you’re missing the point. That 6% comprises about 95% of where the BBWO and other fire-dependent species occur in the burned forest! We have a number of papers out documenting this fact. Look at the BBWO model; it matches precisely where salvage logging is targeted.

        • But Rick, isn’t the point of this research that the forest can intentionally leave the some area for each of all the different woodpecker species? Can you show us the mapping of the area for which the BBWO model shows where salvage logging is targeted? Is that in a specific EA or EIS?

    • There is no shortage of dead trees, after Forest Service salvage logging projects. Of course, wildlife doesn’t need each and every acre of a severely-burned landscape. In fact, with the BB Woodpecker, there aren’t nearly enough pairs to populate the habitat. After just 6 years of use, those snags become unusable to those birds. Additionally, such a practice could result in landscapes that will never grow old trees, due to human-caused wildfires. You cannot remove humans (and their effects) from the ecosystems. We’ve already seen where majestic and untouched old growth in Yosemite has turned into lands that can barely support chaparral brush, in just 30 years. Such a practice is, clearly, unsustainable.

      Clearly, we should not be using ‘industrial’ salvage logging for comparison. With USFS salvage projects cutting on small portions of fires, ALL of those facts should be analyzed, then compared to the “No Action” alternative, with its accompanying ‘unintended consequences’ of its own.

      • If “majestic and untouched old growth in Yosemite has turned into lands that can barely support chaparral brush, in just 30 years,” then you have witnessed disturbance ecology in action! Wait 150-200 years to see older forest again–that’s what disturbance ecology is all about.

        • Rick, with climate change we can’t predict what disturbances of the future will or will not lead to in terms of vegetation.

          There are strong stochastic variables associated with tree regeneration. For example when there is not seed available because older trees around are not alive. Or the brush keeps seeds from reaching the ground. Over time, the brush can burn off in another fire, but that might also burn the rest of trees and so on… that’s assuming the climate doesn’t change so much that forest trees are unable to keep up evolutionarily (which I think it unlikely, but who knows?)

    • Rick, what do you mean by “compromising the integrity”? Do you mean that anyplace that burns must be left alone to provide habitat? But what if wildfires increase, as some predict, due to climate change? If there are now say 100K BBW’s in the Sierra, would the “integrity be compromised” if twice the area were burned and there were anything less than 200K in the future?
      “Integrity” sounds like an either/or (toggle), while population numbers are more like a dial.

  5. Gosh, I would think that anyone who has visited any of our national forests in the west would have to have seen thousands and thousands acres of snags killed by fires. Our billions of dollars of lost timber resource provided by billions of dollars fire fighting “wildfires”, I would imagine, is providing all the habitat the woodpeckers could dream of, even after the limited amount of roadside hazard tree removal has occurred.

  6. In case everyone wasn’t aware, Dr. Hutto (who has commented above) is Professor Emeritus at the College of Forestry & Conservation at the University of Montana in Missoula.

    Dr. Richard L. Hutto is Professor and immediate past Director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana. Hutto has conducted research on migratory landbirds in Mexico in winter, the Southwest during spring and fall, and in the Northern Rockies in summer for more than 35 years. In 1990, he developed the USFS Northern Region Landbird Monitoring Program, and he has been studying the ecological effects of fire on bird communities for the last 25 years. Dr. Hutto was host of “Birdwatch,” a nationally televised PBS series that ran from 1998-2001. Because he is moved by what birds have to teach us about land stewardship, Hutto established the Avian Science Center on the University of Montana campus to promote ecological awareness and informed decision making by listening to what western birds tell us about the ecological effects of human land-use practices.

    • The California memo on the black-backed woodpecker states that “since 2003, approximately 44,111 ha (109,000 acre) of coniferous forest was subject to high severity forest fires and approximately 8,822 ha (21,800 acres) have been salvaged, leaving about 35,289 ha (87,200 acres) of severely burnt forest available for black-backed woodpeckers.”

      So, 80% of the area burned by high severity forest fires was NOT salvaged.

      • That number by itself is not very helpful in answering the question of whether it is enough to sustain viable populations. In fact, the memo concludes only that the magnitude of this threat is “uncertain.” Their decision that listing is not warranted was based on other factors. (The last bullet that suggests the 80% figure is a factor is not supported by the language in the document.)

  7. If national forest land is suitable for timber production, then the forest plan would presumably allow salvage harvest (subject to site-specific environmental considerations). Otherwise there needs to be a non-timber basis for doing so. Like safety (where the issue seems to be about where that can be done with a categorical exclusion). I think the ecological arguments supporting salvage logging are pretty difficult, and the circumstances of at risk species should be a priority consideration. It’s not very important that some species may benefit if it drives others onto a threatened/endangered species list.

  8. A couple notes about this study.
    1) It does not capture the most significant period of snag shortage, after most of the snags have fallen down and before new ones have regrown.
    2) It does not recognize all the other important values provided by snags and dead wood, other than woodpecker habitat. See Rose, C.L., Marcot, B.G., Mellen, T.K., Ohmann, J.L., Waddell, K.L., Lindely, D.L., and B. Schrieber. 2001. Decaying Wood in Pacific Northwest Forests: Concepts and Tools for Habitat Management, Chapter 24 in Wildlife-Habitat Relationships in Oregon and Washington (Johnson, D. H. and T. A. O’Neil. OSU Press. 2001) http://web.archive.org/web/20060708035905/http://www.nwhi.org/inc/data/GISdata/docs/chapter24.pdf
    3) Sometimes the agency likes to say that salvage logging benefits woodpeckers. e.g., “Partially logged areas with moderate snag densities of larger diameters are characteristic of nesting habitat for Lewis’s woodpecker, whereas black-backed woodpeckers are typically found nesting in unlogged areas of high snag densities with smaller diameters.” Saab et al 2011. Woodpecker Habitat After the Fire. Fire Science Brief. Issue 143. October 2011. http://www.firescience.gov/projects/briefs/06-3-4-15_FSBrief143.pdf. In essence, the agency likes to say they are providing habitat for different species by salvage logging some areas and not others, (this could be described as “spatially segregated habitat diversity”), but a better way to look at this is to realize the time period just after the fire is better for black-backed woodpeckers while the period after a portion of the snags have fallen is better for Lewis’ WP and white-headed WP. (This could be described as “temporally segregated habitat diversity”). Looking at the big picture, artificially providing spatial diversity through salvage logging results in less total acres of both habitat types compared to letting natural processes create temporal diversity.


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