GOOD IS A RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER?
by Whit Gibbons
July 24, 2005
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
you have an environmental question or comment, email