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.

Hurricane Laura displaced thousands of Louisianans when it whipped its Category 4 winds across Lake Charles and nearby communities. The storm also displaced the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

The bird was gradually recovering as a species when 17,000 acres of longleaf pine trees were destroyed. There might be even more destruction, and we won’t know for sure until the spring, according to a state Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Industry experts say the Aug. 27 hurricane knocked down or destroyed at least 915 trees in which the woodpeckers use cavities to establish homes 20 to 30 feet up in hollowed-out burrows in which father and mother birds live with hatched offspring. Many of these trees were in southern Vernon Parish and on to the outskirts of Alexandria. More woodpecker homes were destroyed in the 85,500-acre Vernon Unit of Kisatchie National Forest, where most of the birds lived near the Fort Polk Army Base.

The damage was so heavy that biologists found it hard to find enough trees in which they could create cavities for new homes.

The 8-inch bird garnered a great deal of human support after a number of other hurricanes in our state and problems elsewhere in the nation. This latest problem came a short time before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed loosening conservation status under the Endangered Species Act. If that happens, the woodpecker’s status would change from endangered to threatened. Since there were about 1,500 to 3,500 of these woodpecker clusters when the birds were nearly extinct and listed as endangered, there are arguments that having 7,800 clusters today should be enough. Unfortunately, there might be even more of these birds without the frequent devastation of hurricanes.

Some landowners, forestry groups and military base officials are happy to see a sign that things are improving. Bird enthusiasts, preservation groups and environmentalists, however, argue that current efforts haven’t met goals established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before a species' status is changed in the regulations.

The goal of conservation isn’t to continue to have endangered species. The intent is to save species from being endangered to thriving. In this case, that requires deliberate efforts to increase woodpecker numbers so they can be a beautiful, vibrant part of our nature community. How many clusters and birds are enough can be debated and discussed. The Fish and Wildlife Service will take public comment through Dec. 7. We urge interested citizens to weigh in.

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