More than 400 private landowners across nine states are voluntarily managing their forests through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Safe Harbor Program to benefit the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Private landowners have voluntarily enrolled almost 2.5 million acres in the Safe Harbor Program benefitting 835 groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The creation of the Safe Harbor Program provides an incentive for landowners to continue voluntary management efforts because they are assured there will be no additional land use restrictions under the Endangered Species Act if red-cockaded woodpeckers increase on their property. The Service started the Safe Harbor Program at the Pinehurst Resort in the North Carolina Sandhills in 1995. Private landowners in the Sandhills already had been managing their longleaf pine forests for a variety of uses that also benefitted and could increase red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Word of the Safe Harbor Program’s success with red-cockaded woodpecker conservation quickly spread from the North Carolina Sandhills to other states. Landowners voluntarily managing their land to help woodpeckers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia are able to enroll in the program through their state natural resource agency or another conservation agency. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the program to landowners in the North Carolina Sandhills and Mississippi.
Landowners interested in red-cockaded woodpecker conservation through the Safe Harbor Program may contact the Service’s Red-cockaded Woodpecker Coordinator Will McDearman for information about the program in their state.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in distinct social groups. Each group usually consists of a breeding male and female and one or more non-breeding helpers with a cluster of cavity trees. Each bird has its own cavity, excavated in living pines, and the group forages mostly for invertebrates on the bark of pines in their territory around their cavity tree cluster. The number of active red-cockaded woodpecker clusters represents a baseline responsibility when a landowner enrolls in the Program. Any additional red-cockaded woodpecker clusters as a result of voluntary management are considered above-baseline. As authorized by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit under the Endangered Species Act, a landowner enrolled in the Safe Harbor Program can manage the forest or property for an above-baseline woodpecker cluster in any lawful manner, even if it harms or injures the woodpecker group. There are 160 above-baseline woodpecker groups now on private lands enrolled in the Safe Harbor Program.
The original success of the first red-cockaded woodpecker Safe Harbor Program in the North Carolina Sandills also led the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a national program. Other endangered or threatened wildlife helped by Safe Harbor Agreements include the Utah prairie dog, Florida scrub jay, Lahontan cutthroat trout, Houston toad, and Karner blue butterfly. Safe Harbor agreements with private landowners now benefit more than 100 federally listed species on 5.2 million acres in 26 states.