When Hurricane Laura's wind and storm surge displaced thousands of people from their homes two months ago, the Category 4 storm also devastated the habitat of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker -- and the full impact may not be known until spring, wildlife biologists say.

A family-oriented homebody of a bird, the species was on a gradual, but fragile recovery in some parts of Louisiana. But Laura's march across the state on Aug. 27 destroyed some 17,000 acres of longleaf pine forests where the woodpecker lives, according to industry estimates. 

High winds knocked down or otherwise destroyed at least 915 "cavity" trees across a swath of mostly public forests stretching from southern Vernon Parish to the outskirts of Alexandria, early state and federal estimates say. In hollowed out burrows in those trees, 20 to 30 feet up, the mother and father birds live with their offspring in close-knit family units.

A far smaller and more isolated population in Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Lacombe wasn't harmed by Laura or other recent storms and remains near its maximum capacity, said Barret Fortier, a senior wildlife biologist for Fish and Wildlife refuges in southeast Louisiana. 

U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologists said the agency's 85,500-acre Vernon Unit of Kisatchie National Forest was hit hardest, where the woodpeckers had their largest population in Louisiana in combination with the next-door Fort Polk Army Base, which runs along the northern border of the Forest Service unit. 

A few areas lost so many trees on the Vernon Unit that biologists trying to find new homes for the birds had no trees left in which to drill new burrows. 

Named for the red stripe along either side of the males' upper checks that recall the decorative ribbons and feathers in the hats of 18th-century soldiers, the red-cockaded woodpecker is resilient, state and federal wildlife biologists say.

The 8-inch bird has rebounded with heavy human intervention after other hurricanes in Louisiana and the nation. But the latest losses came just weeks after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed lessening the bird's conservation status under the Endangered Species Act.

The Trump administration has proposed reducing the bird's protection from "endangered" to "threatened" because numbers have been on the rise in places like Big Branch, thanks to intensive conservation efforts over decades. The proposed status change was announced nearly a month after Laura came ashore.

Improving numbers, lingering worries

When the woodpeckers were on the brink of extinction and first listed as endangered 1970, there were about 1,500 to 3,500 "clusters -- family units spread among several trees. Today, there are about 7,800 clusters, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.

Landowner and forestry groups, military officials who oversee bases where many of the woodpeckers live, and public land officials in other states welcomed the announcement as a sign recovery efforts were working. They say it shows how attitudes about conservation have shifted in the right direction over the past 25 to 30 years. 

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The white stripes mark trees that hold cavities home to the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge in Lacombe. The endangered bird lives in clusters, or units of family breeding pairs and other helpers, amongst the trees. This cluster is next to a parking lot for the Boy Scout Road trail and board walk in the 18,000-acre refuge along Lake Pontchartrain.

"I think whenever we can show success for the recovery of a species, and I think it's worth showing the public that we're just not claiming it's threatened and endangered and tying things up. When we do make it successful, we bring it back to a normal population and celebrate the success story and focus our resources and expertise on next species that need to some help," said Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association.

But bird enthusiasts, wildland preservation groups and environmental advocates, who are still trying to take stock of the new plans before a public comment period ends Dec. 7, say the woodpeckers' raw numbers and resiliency measurements haven't even met the Fish and Wildlife Service's own recovery goals for reducing the protection status.

The western range in Louisiana and elsewhere, in particular, hasn't seen the same kind of improvement as forests farther east, state wildlife officials said, citing annual population statistics.

The experience in Laura also underscores a hard fact about the woodpeckers and their current numbers, some advocates say. Though their numbers have improved, they are susceptible to increasingly frequent and destructive hurricanes, particularly along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic coasts.

"That's something we have repeatedly pointed to, is the increasing frequency and severity of climate change-induced storms is going to be a worsening threat to this species and is something that the agency needs to seriously consider" when it reviews models laying out the woodpecker's recovery path, said Ramona McGee, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "You know one storm could easily take one or multiple populations of (red-cockaded woodpeckers), which then would set back recovery in significant ways."

Fish and Wildlife officials said a quick response by the Forest Service and others after Laura should forestall "a significant decline" in the birds' numbers, while the agency's management plans build in some redundancy to account for hurricanes.

"Supporting and managing multiple (red-cockaded woodpecker) populations across the species range and at inland sites ameliorates risks to the species caused by periodic hurricanes," Will McDearman, the service's woodpecker and longleaf pine recovery coordinator, said in a written response to questions.

Clusters can recover 

After serious damage from Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago, Big Branch Marsh, the 18,000-acre refuge between Mandeville and Slidell on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, has recently reached 21 bird "clusters." The small, genetically isolated total is likely close to the area's carrying capacity, meaning the birds will always require heavy conservation efforts to be sustained, but they have recovered, Fortier and other biologists said.

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The red-cockaded woodpecker, seen in an undated photo on its perch, lives in the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The bird, which has been recovering, is endangered and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to downlist it to threatened  status. Some biologists and conservationists say the numbers haven’t fully recovered and the bird remains in isolated pockets, like Big Branch, that are vulnerable to catastrophic storms.

In southwestern Louisiana, post-hurricane storm tracks from the National Weather Service show Laura's eye passed just west of the Forest Service's Vernon Unit and the Army base, meaning the eastern side of Laura hit the area with 105 mph winds. 

Matt Pardue, the Vernon Unit's wildlife biologist, said an early estimate puts the loss of cavity trees at 730. But that total in the unit is most certainly going to be higher after he is able to gain more access into the forestlands.

Fort Polk lost another 85 cavity trees and at least three breeding pairs of birds, wildlife officials on the base said. Other sections of the state and federal forests also had cavity tree losses, but not as significant as the Vernon Unit's.

U. S. Forest Service, state and other officials moved quickly in after Laura hit Aug. 27 to install 250 manmade "inserts," which mimic the bird's natural tree cavities, in remaining pines to provide new homes. That has helped the woodpeckers recover in other states after severe hurricane strikes, Fish and Wildlife and Forest Service officials said.

But, in a few cluster areas, so many trees were lost that biologists were unable to find new pines, Pardue said.

"It's like every tree within a quarter mile is down, so we either had to move them down the road and hope that they found it, or, you know, some of them are just lost forever," Pardue said.

He said that while he was still trying to assess how many "clusters" of woodpecker trees were in that latter category, he believed it was no more than four or five and remained hopeful that most of the birds in the Forest Service unit had survived. 

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Spaced-out, long leaf pine forests similar to this one in Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Lacombe, as seen Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, but with much older, bigger trees, were once home to the red-cockaded woodpecker. The endangered species has seen its numbers improve due to conservation efforts but remains in isolated, vulnerable pockets, like the 18,000-acre refuge along Lake Pontchartrain.

The birds have been heard in the Vernon Unit's trees and, anecdotally, appeared to be taking roost again, Pardue said. But the full impact won't be known until the annual spring count.

Once a vast range

Before European settlement of North America, the woodpecker was prevalent in the open, fire-maintained pine savannas across 92 million acres from New Jersey to Florida and west to Oklahoma. It had an estimated 1.6 million family clusters in the ancient old growth forests, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.

The only woodpeckers known to burrow in live trees, they prefer old growth pines, where the central heartwood of the tree has begun to soften and no longer has sap flowing through it. 

The birds are territorial and don't migrate, often remaining no more than a mile from their cluster sites. Their family units rely on helper birds, usually older "brothers" who aren't yet breeding, to keep the clusters going with forage and other needs.

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The board walk in Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Lacombe extends to the sloshy long leaf pine forest Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, as the evening light falls away on the habitat of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to downlist the bird of the Louisiana’s old piney woods to threatened status; many conservationist are concerned. The birds come home to their tree cavities at dusk.

The woodpecker's range had extended across Louisiana. But after Reconstruction in the Florida Parishes, destitute people sold off land or sought out work with mostly out-of-state timber concerns to log the region's virgin, towering piney woods.

Sam Hyde, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor who has spent his career studying the region's history and politics, said the timber companies cut out the forests, from the late 1870s to early 1900s, and didn't replant, leaving stumps for miles in any direction.

"By 1910, Louisiana had 13 million acres that were regarded as cut-over wasteland," Hyde said. 

Replanting eventually happened, but modern forestry practices geared toward quicker turnaround of younger, more densely planted forests prevented many old-growth trees from growing.

Conservation efforts on public lands and on private property under special agreements have focused on allowing the older trees to grow. They also restored understory burning that fosters natural forage for the woodpecker and dozens of other species, including game animals like turkey and deer, wildlife biologists said.

Bird and wildland advocates say they fear lowering the birds' conservation status would be premature, lessening some protections for bird habitat and allowing public agencies to de-emphasize their costly efforts, even though the service's own down-listing proposal says the bird remains a conservation-reliant species that still needs human intervention.

Forest Service, Fort Polk and Fish and Wildlife officials say they remain committed to the bird's conservation and the threatened status will still afford protection.

"Much of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s currently occupied habitat is now, and will continue to be, protected under various management plans," McDearman said. "The management commitments made by many conservation partners for the foreseeable future (25 to 30 years from the present) will ensure that red-cockaded woodpecker populations grow or are maintained."


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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