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The Ivory-bill after a decade: $20.3 million spent, total cost ‘unknown’

A searcher in Arkansas in 2007-08. Photo by Richard Guthrie, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
A searcher in Arkansas in 2007-08. Photo by Richard Guthrie, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, federal and state governments spent more than $20.3 million on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the 10 years between October 2003 and September 2013.

States pitched in $566,324 of the total (2.8 percent), while federal agencies — the Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Geological Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and others — contributed the lion’s share.

Ivorybill pin_220x215Almost two-thirds of the total, $13.2 million, went to land acquisitions that will benefit many species, and almost all of that was spent in 2005 ($5.6 million) and 2006 ($4.8 million), when hopes of rediscovery were highest.

The federal government spent more than $15 billion on endangered species, and $1.415 billion on endangered bird species, during the decade. Federal and state expenditures for the Ivory-bill amounted to 1.44 percent of the bird total.

In a 185-page draft recovery plan released in August 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed spending $27,785,000 on the Ivory-bill through 2010. But in its final plan (PDF),  published in 2010, the agency said the total cost “is unknown at this time because of our limited knowledge concerning [the woodpecker’s] occurrence, distribution, and long-term actions required.”

Chronology of a frustrating search

Writing in the August 2005 issue of Birder’s World, search team leaders Elliott Swarthout and Ron Rohrbaugh of Cornell reported that the heady first season in Arkansas consumed more than 20,000 party-hours but produced less than a minute of total Ivory-bill observation time.

The search commenced in secrecy in March 2004 and ran between March and May 2004 and from November 20, 2004, to April 30, 2005. It also generated more than 16,000 hours of recordings that the coordinator of Cornell’s acoustic search later characterized as “suggestive” and “tantalizing” but not conclusive proof of the woodpecker’s presence in the Big Woods.

The second massive search took place between November 2005 and April 2006. (The team chose to work in the winter months because the lack of leaves permitted clear views through the forest.) It involved 22 full-time searchers and state-of-the-art acoustic and video monitoring but turned up no definitive evidence for the woodpecker’s persistence in eastern Arkansas.

The third, conducted from December 1, 2006, to April 30, 2007, involved five full-time staff and 57 volunteers but again produced no hard proof.

Six full-time staffers took to the field in Arkansas for the final time from December 4, 2007, through April 26, 2008. Overhead, photographers in low-flying helicopters shot digital pictures of several species of alarmed woodpeckers, but not one of an Ivory-bill.

Seven members of Cornell’s mobile search team investigated promising-looking habitat in southwestern Florida between January and March 2009 but concluded the search was inadequate because of the nearly inaccessible nature of most of the terrain. Teams had assessed habitat in South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama in previous years.

A version of this article accompanied a 10-page special report on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker written by Jerome A. Jackson. The report appeared in the February 2015 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.

Read more about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Truth is out there
Jerome A. Jackson assesses David Kulivan’s 1999 report of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Pearl River Swamp, Louisiana. June 2002.

Old friend found
Eyewitness accounts of sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers from the Cache River, Arkansas. By Chris Niskanen, August 2005.

Now what?
What’s next for the Big Woods Conservation Partnership and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. By Elliott Swarthout and Ron Rohrbaugh, August 2005.

First step
In the wake of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery, a plea for conservation of the world’s other declining species. By George Fenwick, August 2005.

Old friend missing
Description, range, habits, and credible sightings of the Imperial Woodpecker. By Matt Mendenhall, December 2005.

Faith-based ornithology
Jerome A. Jackson argues that mistakes were made, putting support for future conservation at risk. By Chuck Hagner, February 2006.

The other guys
Geoffrey Hill describes his search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. February 2007.

1 in 15,625
Teams of researchers calculate the odds of finding a living Ivory-bill today. By Matt Mendenhall, February 2012.

Ghost bird
Ten years after Ivory-bill fever swept the nation, Jerome A. Jackson assesses the hope, hype, and disappointment. February 2015.

Sightings map
Historic ranges and reported sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers since 1944. By BirdWatching Magazine, August 2005, February 2015.

Read the final reports on the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Annual expenditure reports for endangered species are available in the Endangered Species Act Document Library on the website of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Ivory-bill after a decade: Just how do we know when a species is extinct?

  Originally Published

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