Making a Plan

February 17, 2006

By Pat Leonard

How do you make a plan to save a bird so rare it’s taken thousands of hours of tramping in the woods to record a handful of observations and a few seconds of video? That’s the daunting task faced by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team. The team was formed after it was announced in April 2005 that the ivory-bill had been rediscovered in Arkansas. The team is led by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and includes dozens of experts in conservation, forestry, ornithology, and ecology. Federal, state, and private organizations are all represented in this deep talent pool.

About 70 members of the Recovery Team gathered at the convention center in Brinkley, Arkansas, February 6-8. These are members of the Biology Working Group and the Habitat Management and Conservation Working Group. Although they are listed as separate their work is inextricably joined and they often work as one.  

Questioning the Questions

Jon Andrew, Ivory-billed
Woodpecker Recovery
Team Leader, © USFWS

The purpose of the meeting in Brinkley was to discuss portions of the recovery plan that have already been drafted. It was also meant to further refine Recovery Team goals and the strategies used to get there. That sounds simple enough, but in fact, it’s incredibly complex. Jon Andrew, leader of the Recovery Team for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, points out some of the difficulties in setting parameters for the plan: "Do you go with a plan that has specific population goals in it, like ‘x’ number of woodpeckers in this part of Arkansas, or in this part of Louisiana, or this part of Florida? Or do you continue the work that’s going on now searching for birds and developing habitat models?"

Ron Rohrbaugh,
Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project Director,
Photo: Jason Koski, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In the end, the plan will likely be a combination of both. The director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project, Ron Rohrbaugh, is part of the Habitat Working Group. He says the definition of what constitutes "recovery" for this species is debatable: "How many pairs? How much habitat area is needed to support that population? How many of those kinds of places are you willing to create and do they need to be connected together by threads of forest so bird populations can intersperse?" he says.

The Recovery Team's plan for the future of the ivory-bill will have to be built upon the past and the present. Compiling what’s known about the history and biology of the species is the job of the Biology Working Group, co-chaired by Ken Rosenberg, head of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In addition to using the research cited in the Birds of North America series, he says, "We’ve asked a representative from each state in the bird’s former range to write a brief summary of the historic and present status of the bird in that state. We’ve received reports from Texas, South Carolina, Arkansas, and some states like Kentucky where there’s no real hope for the bird to still be present but we have a summary of its historic status." New information about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will come from what's happening in the field right now.

Ken Rosenberg, Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team, Biology Group Co-chair, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Search is "Job One"

So that means the search itself remains the top priority. "The search is extremely important," Andrew says. "It’s probably the highest priority, to find birds—and once we do that, then we can begin to learn a lot more about their habitat." Inventory and study of the existing habitat will offer clues on where exactly to conduct the searches. Rosenberg says, "There’s a whole group that’s concentrating on defining habitat conditions and what they call 'desired future conditions' for the ivory-bill, using a lot of sophisticated modeling techniques."

The information being gathered will come not only from Arkansas but from states that were once part of the ivory-bill’s range. There are some well-organized searches beginning in South Carolina on February 28, concentrating in the Congaree National Park and the area around the community of Santee. Another search, funded in part by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and carried out under the direction of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, will be taking place in areas of east Texas with potential good habitat for the bird, including the Big Thicket National Preserve. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is working on a small survey in the Pearl River area. Andrew says small surveys are also going to be taking place in Alabama and Georgia. Rosenberg says, "I see this as our one last big chance to really scour every acre of potential habitat and if we don’t do it right this time, we probably won’t get this chance again. There are enough recent reports from other states that we’re actually quite optimistic."


Under the current timeline, there will be a draft of the recovery plan ready for internal review by April. After revision, the plan will be put before the public in September for a 60-day comment period. The goal is to have a final plan in place by June 2007. But "final" is a relative term. Because the search to re-find the ivory-bill is ongoing, the document will be flexible enough to include new information about habitat and population that may be gathered as the searches progress. Not everything is being created from scratch. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has crafted other recovery plans for highly endangered species, including a rare frog known as the Puerto Rican Demon or Guajon, the Laysan Duck in the Pacific, and for various Hawaiian forest birds that are on the brink of extinction.

Not Going It Alone

If nothing else, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker project has shown the value of partnerships. Both Andrew and Rohrbaugh say they are pleasantly surprised by the level of cooperation among so many people and agencies. “I guess the thing that’s surprising and gratifying is the level of dedication and the level of enthusiasm,” Andrew says of all those involved in the project. “They’re really eager to jump on this, they want to do the searches, they want to figure out the best ways to conserve and manage the habitat within their region…and that really comes across in these meetings.”

White River NWR, Photo: Jason Koski, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Rohrbaugh also says getting the Recovery Team together is a good thing for the people in the field. "The opportunity to present our search results up to this point in the field season is nice—to get feedback on the techniques we’re using, where we’re searching, what we’re finding, and how we go about monitoring important things like cavities and feeding trees. It helps us tweak our technique. It helps us learn what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. Where else can you find a room full of 70 so-called ivory-billed experts?"