Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan

I hesitate to post on this topic given some of the extreme responses it can generate, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service is about to publish a final recovery plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
But after five years of fruitless searching, hopes of saving the species have faded. "We don't believe a recoverable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers exists," says Ron Rohrbaugh, a conservation biologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who headed the original search team.

The FWS has spent $14 million trying to document and conserve the ivory-billed woodpecker throughout the southeast United States, including $8 million for habitat preservation and $2 million for search-associated costs. The hunt was suspended last October after it ran out of money. Chasing down a string of dubious and faked claims of sightings added an extra burden, undermining already-stressed wildlife programmes, experts say.

Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers who serves on the FWS's ivory-billed woodpecker recovery team, says that a draft recovery plan from 2007 is "incredibly biased". In his view, the plans have overemphasized evidence of the bird's existence to shore up political support for saving it. "I don't think I'm going to be happy with the final plan either," he adds.

Laurie Fenwood, coordinator of the ivory-billed woodpecker project at the agency's office in Atlanta, Georgia, says that recovery plans are needed to collect the best scientific knowledge on species — even if it's not clear whether they have already gone extinct.
For those who are interested, the draft recovery plan (pdf) is available Fish and Wildlife Service's Ivorybill website. Without confirmation of a viable population (or where it might be located), I think it would be difficult to construct a meaningful recovery plan. Perhaps preservation of more habitat within their historical range could be a centerpiece of such a plan, though such preservation could not be targeted to benefit a known population. If the final plan does call for additional conservation actions, it will need to be careful not to draw resources away from other threatened species that need it.

The linked article also carries the tidbit that the facts in the Daniel Rainsong episode may soon become more clear. For those unfamiliar with the name, he claimed to have found and photographed Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Sabine River Basin of Texas. No photos have been released; instead he sent out a press release (which seems to have been revised subsequent to its initial release) to establish his "right of claim in this discovery." Cornell's Ivory-billed Woodpecker research group has met with him and plans to release their own analysis of Rainsong's story and documentation within the next week.

So far that claim has met with a great deal of public skepticism because the photos have been withheld and few details of the alleged discovery are available. The most thorough coverage of the story has been at cyberthrush's Ivory-bills Live blog. Hopefully next week's release will put the issue to rest.