Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Pandora's box?
"It’s kind of like finding Elvis."
"This is the most exciting ornithological discovery in a long, long time."
These are a couple of the comments from prominent birding experts regarding the discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker along the White and Cache rivers in Arkansas, a bird thought to be extinct. This very charismatic species has been a Holy Grail to birders for decades. Every reported sighting incites great excitement, and more recently, extensive searches, such as the unsuccessful 2002 expedition sponsored by Zeiss Sports Optics. Now we have confirmed that at least one bird is still alive.
I’m not sorry this species still survives, but I frankly feel a little sorry that it has been publicized. The dog finally has the bumper of the speeding car firmly in mouth. Now what?
Conservation issues.So far, only a single male Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been found. I don’t doubt there are others; with a maximum life span of perhaps 15 years, there clearly has been some reproduction since the last confirmed sighting in 1969. Given the herculean yet unsuccessful efforts by professional and amateurs over the years to find ivory-bills, it seems that the odds that there is a viable, genetically diverse, reproducing population in the U.S. seems vanishingly small. What does that mean to conservation efforts?
Although it is a listed species, little money or effort has been spent on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because its current status was unknown. This discovery might logically trigger a process under the ESA including designation of critical habitat and the development of a recovery plan, both of which are time-consuming and expensive, but necessary, components of species conservation under our current law.
A bit of context: Under the ESA, there are 1263 listed species in the U.S. Of those, over 200 do not have recovery plans and only 478 have designated critical habitat. Fewer than 10% of the organisms protected by the Endangered Species Act are recovering, a third are declining, and another third lack sufficient data to determine a trend. Especially under the current administration, a lack of resources hobbles conservation efforts and our focus has become skewed – generally, over half the (insufficient) expeditures for the ESA goes to protect fewer than a dozen of the 1263 species.
Are we willing to take a hard look at the practical costs of trying to recover the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a species that was already declining in Audubon’s time? Will this spur the necessary debate regarding going at conservation from a habitat and biodiversity perspective rather than a single (charismatic) species perspective?
Habitat issues. The best thing the discovery of an endangered species can do is prompt habitat preservation and acquisition, which has apparently taken place in this instance. But just because habitat is protected does not mean it’s safe. I have seen good, upstanding citizens do really appalling things (and smarmy people do worse) in order to see a bird. Hold on, let me repeat that: TO SEE A BIRD. Just so they can say they saw it. Not to protect it. Not to perform research. Just to add it their lists. (And let’s not discount the fact that there is probably some contemptible jerk out there who would surreptitiously pay tens of thousands of dollars to possess an Ivory-billed Woodpecker skin.)
I realize this is a vast and hard-to-access place, and that may slow some people down. But I have already seen postings where people have admitted they’d go to extreme lengths to see an ivory-bill. I have a very hard time visualizing how the habitat and associated flora and fauna in the vicinity of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will not be impacted by the influx of visitors. The extent remains to be seen. While there may be some benefit to the surrounding communities from increased tourism, which could create incentives to protect habitat, for all we know it may result in new hotels and a nice Wal-Mart to accommodate the birders.
It would be great if it was just enough for us to know that the bird is there. Really worthwhile would be if every birder who is planning to travel to Arkansas, get a hotel room, rent a car or kayak, or hire a guide to see this bird would instead take the money that they would have spent and donate to a conservation organization. The NPR story said that secret donors had provided $1 million to fund the search for the ivory-bill (I have no doubt this guaranteed them access to the bird). I don't know how much Zeiss spent on its search, but it was surely substantial. Who will step forth to donate money at the same level to help fund the unglamourous and tedious but vital monitoring and research that should follow this discovery?
These are the major issues and concerns I have surrounding the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I hope that I am wrong about this bringing out the worst in people, and resulting in a muddle of conflicting agendas and outcomes.
I hope that instead it will inspire renewed energy towards meaningful conservation efforts, create an outpouring of funding, set in motion a groundswell of support for the strengthening and improvement of the Endangered Species Act rather than its dilution or dissolution, and make the Ivory-billed Woodpecker no longer a symbol of what we have lost, but an icon of what we can learn and do when we are given an unexpected second chance.