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Ivory-bill delisting update: Feds ‘looking at everything’

Ivory-bill
This detail from Audubon’s painting of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers shows a female (top) and a male focusing their attention on a beetle. Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing

It has been a year now since federal wildlife officials said the time had come to label the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct, but they have not turned the page on this elusive species just yet.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) still is reviewing all the materials it received, after announcing last September that the service intended to rule the Ivory-bill extinct, along with 22 other species of birds, mussels, fish, and a species of bat.

“We are looking at everything that has been given to us during the comment period,” said Amy Trahan, a fish and wildlife biologist with the FWS and point person in the review of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s status. “We have to make decisions based on the best available science.

“We’re working really hard and looking at everything, and making sure all of our bases are covered,” she said in an interview last week. “We are doing this in a scientific manner.”

Not surprisingly, people who follow the Ivory-bill story had a lot to say about the proposal to delist this woodpecker under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and they directed a significant volume of public comments and information to the federal agency.

“There are a lot of people with a lot of passion (about Ivory-bills), and with varying opinions,” Trahan said “It is a very charismatic species, and people are really interested in it. I completely understand.”

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Initially, the agency had until September 30 of this year to finalize its ruling, according to federal law. However, officials decided to extend the decision deadline by up to six months. This presumably gives the agency until March 30, 2023, as the ESA allows an extension of “no more than” six months if officials determine there is “substantial disagreement” about a proposed change such as delisting a species.

“Recognizing substantial disagreement among experts regarding the status of the species, the [FWS] is extending the deadline to allow for additional time to review information,” officials stated in July. The agency stated that it was seeking new information, including “clear video or photographic evidence of the presence of the ivory-billed woodpecker that can be repeatedly interpreted the same way by independent observers, such as definitive photographic evidence collected by a field observer.”

Looking ahead to the next few months, the question arises: Exactly how will the six-month extension play out? Should the public expect no decision on the Ivory-bill before March 30, or is it possible that FWS could decide before then?

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Trahan and agency spokesperson Ian Fischer declined to comment on any specific dates for the decision; in response to a follow-up question, Fischer stated, “We anticipate announcing our decision on the ivory-billed woodpecker around spring of 2023.”

They also declined to comment on specific material about the Ivory-bill submitted to the agency, such as the detailed reports from Project Principalis about its searches in Louisiana over the past decade.

In a paper earlier this year, and a virtual presentation to two FWS staff members this summer, Project Principalis researchers contend that surviving Ivory-bills appear in several of the project’s trail-camera photos and clips from drone footage. Their cameras captured some of these images as recently as December 2021. “We are encouraged and energized by what we have accomplished,” the researchers stated in their paper. “Our findings, and the inferences drawn from them, suggest an increasingly hopeful future for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”

The project remains confident that its photos and clips show living Ivory-bills in Louisiana, team member Steve Latta stated last week, answering questions via email. The researchers have been “studying this species for many years and have put great effort into our body of work,” he wrote.

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Latta is director of conservation and field research for the non-profit National Aviary, a partner in Project Principalis. Members of the former Project Coyote started the work in Louisiana in 2009, and the parties adopted the current name after the National Aviary became a partner.

“We were heartened to learn this summer that the USFWS was extending their deadline to make a decision on the Ivory-bill’s status on the Endangered Species List,” Latta stated. “Extinction is tragic, and we trust that the agency is using all available data as they evaluate the Ivory-bill’s status.”

As anyone familiar with the natural and cultural histories of this species knows, getting compelling evidence that Ivory-bills still inhabit southern bottomland forests has proven to be a difficult task. If the species is not gone completely, then certainly it is rare, and it’s likely to steer clear of human activity whenever possible.

But the results from Project Principalis so far, Latta argued, show the potential effectiveness of its approach in Louisiana — searching intensively over multiple years, and combining field observers looking for any sights, sounds, or other signs of Ivory-bills with technologies such as trail cameras and drones.

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“This is a great time to revisit the other sites where Ivory-bills have been reported in recent years and implement more thorough, long-term searches,” he added.

Exclusive: Video offered as evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker

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Rob Shapard

Rob Shapard

Rob Shapard, PhD, is a writer and historian in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He focuses in part on environmental history and current environmental issues in the American South.

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