by Whit Gibbons

July 24, 2005

An environmentalist friend was annoyed recently at a talk in which a research ecologist spoke about his work with red-cockaded woodpeckers. These little woodpeckers of the southeastern Coastal Plain are officially recognized as an endangered species, and an audience member asked in a somewhat hostile tone: "How much does it cost the taxpayer to protect a single woodpecker?" In other words, "What good is it?"

People ask ecologists such questions many times each year, sometimes confrontationally; other times simply seeking understanding. The natural response to such a bullying question is "Well, how much are you worth?" or "What good are you?” But it’s not a particularly productive response. People want to know why we should spend time and resources to protect some creature or plant they are never likely to see and know little about. Ecologists should be prepared to answer them, with the knowledge that some individuals will never be convinced.

The first step in resolving a species' value is to know something about it. Red-cockaded woodpeckers have highly specific habitat requirements, nesting exclusively in old, yet living, pine trees, around which they center their colonies. Favored trees are often more than 80 years old. The woodpecker chisels a nest cavity in the tree, usually 20 to 50 feet above the ground. The nesting cavities are critical to the natural history of red-cockaded woodpeckers and are often passed down from one generation to the next. The nonmigratory woodpeckers live in small family groups called clans that consist of a mated pair and several offspring. Young bachelor males assist in the clans by defending the territory, incubating eggs, and feeding the nestlings.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is an endangered species not so much because only a few birds remain but primarily because those left are found in isolated and often small populations. Most of those remaining are found in clusters of fewer than 20 families each. These small populations are vulnerable to environmental catastrophes like hurricanes and tornados, or certain forest harvesting programs that destroy old trees.

Reasons why our nation should invest in protection of native wildlife species, including woodpeckers, vary. Not because ecologists keep changing their minds, but because the question has many acceptable answers. People want to understand why protection of endangered, rare, or seemingly insignificant species is important. Why should we maintain and sustain species that can restrict economic development? People want justifications relevant to their own lives, and of course different people relate better to certain answers than others do.

From an environmental perspective, anyone with a religious viewpoint based on the Bible presumably supports the position that humans serve as stewards of the earth and all its creatures (remember Noah?). A belief concordant with biblical insight is that we should not pass judgment on why other species share the earth with us. Instead we should provide support for their protection, especially in situations where our own lifestyle has led to their endangerment. National efforts in behalf of native wildlife will clearly be strengthened by political support from citizens having this environmental attitude.

One answer to "what good is it?" is "because I like it." Who can challenge that? You may not like having government funds spent on woodpeckers, but you can't tell someone else that they can't like the species. To supporters of woodpeckers and other wildlife, programs that protect them sound like a much more rational use of taxpayer money than some other projects to which our taxes go.

Regarding the monetary value of a woodpecker, perhaps the better question is “How much is our natural environment worth?” In other words, the question isn’t how much one species is worth to one person or a group of people. The question isn’t even how much do you or I or Jane Doe value the environment. The question is, or should be, do we, as a people, want to live in a town, county, state, country in which the natural environment and its denizens have been irrevocably damaged?

The cost to conduct research on wildlife and then protect and manage it is minuscule compared to other taxpayer-funded projects. Red-cockaded woodpeckers, as well as all other native plants and animals, have a long way to go before we have put too much into being sure they remain part of the world.

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