Is a "hands-off" approach appropriate for red-cockaded woodpecker conservation in twenty-first-century landscapes?
The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is well adapted to fire-maintained pine ecosystems of the Southeastern United States. Management practices vary greatly among land ownerships. In some wilderness areas and state parks, a "no management" policy has eliminated use of prescribed fire, artificial cavities, and woodpecker translocation, tools that have proved effective elsewhere in recovering woodpecker populations. We compared forests with essentially "no management" to actively managed forests of similar tree ages and similar red-cockaded woodpecker population demographics. We also compared sites that had received no management in the past to the same sites after management. In every case, populations in forests that did not use state of the art management for woodpeckers declined severely compared to those in managed forests. Because managed forests typically used all available management techniques concurrently, it was not possible to separate and rank effectiveness of specific management activities. One exception was the Wade Tract in Georgia, where prescribed fire was the primary activity for herbaceous layer and hardwood management in a high density, stable woodpecker population. Wilderness areas, which are intended to be pristine places that preserve biodiversity, are losing red-cockaded woodpeckers, a keystone species in the ecosystem, at an alarming rate. Collectively, 9 groups of red cockaded woodpeckers were present in 4 wilderness areas in Texas national forests in 1983. At the close of the millennium, only one woodpecker group remained and its continued existence is unlikely without management. The very fragmented features of present-day landscapes and intervention by humans impair the effectiveness of natural disturbance processes, primarily growing-season fire, that historically produced and maintained open pine savannas with grass-forb herbaceous layers in the pre Columbian forests of the southeastern U.S.; therefore, active management must be used if the red-cockaded woodpecker is to persist.