The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The bird-lover world was astonished and delighted to find out that Campephilus principalis, the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct, in fact has been found!
As reported in Science magazine, the ivory-billed bird survives in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in the Big Woods delta wetlands of Monroe County in eastern Arkansas. This bird, jet black and snow white, the male wearing a red crest, is dramatically beautiful, and it tweets out a symphony almost worthy of Beethoven. This woodpecker is so spectacular that folks in the Old South called it the "Lord God" bird, because when somebody spotted one, he would declare, "Oh, Lord God! Y'all come look at this here bird!"
Even though it has a wing span of three feet and stands two feet tall, the few surviving specimens of America's largest woodpecker had been out of sight for several decades. There were reports of seeing it, but they were not confirmed with hard evidence. Once plentiful in the southeastern part of the US, during the 1800s the feathers of the pecker were used to beautify women's hats. Excessive clear-cut logging destroyed their habitat, but a few clever woodies had evidently migrated from their original habitat to the Arkansas forest. The bird was last reported seen in 1944. Its smaller biological cousin, the pileated woodpecker, has survived human civilization and is plentiful in the South. Some people there who thought they had seen the ivory-billed probably spotted the pileated edition with mostly black wings.
Though joyful birders can now adapt Handel to sing, "I know that the ivory-billed bird yet liveth!", there are very few remaining specimens, and great care has to be taken to make sure the ivory-billed's last stand does not lead to final extinction. Too many visitors to the wildlife refuge would put the birds in danger. It is also risky to capture the birds and reintroduce them to their old habitats, as their needs are very specific. The trees, for example, have to be old growth, and there have to be enough birds to be able to find mates and reproduce.
To save the ivory-billed and restore it to its former habitat, the whole wetland forest ecosystem has to be restored. While governmental wildlife refuges have been vital, we also need to acknowledge the role played by private landowners. The Nature Conservancy has protected much of the land in Arkansas where the bird was spotted. The American Land Rights Association reports that over one-half million acres of bottomland hardwoods and wetlands have been restored in the Lower Mississippi River Valley by private landowners.
James L. Cummins, President of the Mississippi River Trust, stated, "The discovery of the ivory billed woodpecker is a celebration of what can occur when good scientific research is combined with the cooperative efforts of public and private landowners. Recovery of the woodpecker will not occur through excessive regulation but rather cooperative efforts between private landowners and the public to restore bottomland hardwoods and wetlands in the vicinity of the discovery."
The US "Endangered Species Act" creates perverse incentives for private landowners. When an endangered species is found on one's land, the law prevents the owner from developing the site. Thus the burden of saving species is put on the landowner. If he wants to develop the land later, the incentive of the landowner is to prevent the species from getting established on his land. He will chop down the trees to prevent rare birds such as the ivory-billed from nesting.
Since the benefit of saving our wildlife heritage goes to all people, all should also bear the cost. The morally-right owners of the earth's wildlife are the animals themselves as well as all human beings, present and future. The owners have the right to have their wildlife property preserved, but they as human trustees should also bear the cost.
Those holding title to wilderness should receive compensation for helping to preserve the habitat. Of course, this should be a general policy, so landowners should also not get a subsidy from owning land. The way to have a neutral policy is to tap the value of all land for public revenue, and then from that fund, pay the owners of wildlife refuges, whether governmental or private, for the opportunity costs, the foregone benefits from developing the sites. That would create positive incentives to save wildlife.
So those who rejoice in the confirmed discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker should get to work to improve the Endangered Species Act and help promote private as well as governmental wildlife refuges so that the habitats of all endangered wildlife will be better preserved.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2005 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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