Forest Focus Transcript—Episode 15. Black-backed Woodpecker and Fire

Total Running Time: 23:14

[Steel drum intro music]

Ann Dunsky: Welcome to Forest Focus, a series of programs about the National Forests of California. I’m Ann Dunsky of the Public Affairs Staff and today we’re discussing the Forest Service, fire and the black-backed woodpecker. We will speak with Rodney Siegel the Executive Director at the Institute for Bird Populations, but first with Diana Craig, the Deputy Director of the Ecosystem Management staff. Diana, give us a brief background of the Forest Service and its role with the black-backed woodpecker?

Diana Craig: Here in the Sierra Nevada, we’ve actually been monitoring black-backed woodpecker since 2008. We can’t monitor all the species. We try and monitor habitats and habitat trends and then we select a handful of species to monitor that will represent other species, and actually black-backed woodpeckers in the Sierra Nevada is a management indicator species. For most species we’re managing the habitat. That’s our goal, and restoring the habitat over the long term. And then for species that are threatened, endangered and Forest Service-sensitive we do manage the individuals somewhat too because they’re at a population level that we’re concerned with and we don’t want to impact further those populations until we can hopefully restore them too.But for the most part we’re managing habitats, not individual species.

Ann Dunsky: What is the current status of the black-backed woodpecker?

Diana Craig: Both agencies, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are doing status reviews right now to determine whether they warrant listing under either the California Endangered Species Act or the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Ann Dunsky: What would listing mean?

Diana Craig: When a species gets listed under the Endangered Species Act it’s very restrictive as to what you can do and what you can’t do. You lose your flexibility. If it becomes federally listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act then we the Forest Service, and other federal agencies, would need to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before we do any activities on our lands that may affect that species.

Ann Dunsky: What is the relationship of the black-backed woodpecker to fire?

Diana Craig: Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem. And black-backed woodpeckers are found in higher abundances in burned forests. They have been found in green forests, unburned forests, but they definitely like the burned forests and it’s probably related to prey base. Woodpeckers are insectivores, they eat insects, and then the wood-boring beetles actually also look for burned forests. So when the black-backs come into burned areas, they’re eating wood boring beetles primarily, that’s their primary food source. So when a forest burns - in fact the smoke can still be coming off of it - these wood-boring beetles zoom in to the forest. They have a way of detecting it from fairly far away and they’ll lay their eggs in these smoldering dead trees. And then the black-backed woodpeckers actually come in and eat the young, the grubs. So woodpeckers provide that check and balance so that the beetles don’t become overwhelming. They’re very important in that aspect.

In addition, woodpeckers are called primary cavity nesters. Each year they create their own cavity in dead trees or dead portions of live trees and the nest process for many of these species, the actual building of that hole, is part of the mating ritual. And so they have to create a new hole each year. The old cavities, the ones that were made in previous years are used by other species - secondary cavity nesters - that cannot make their own cavities for example songbirds, flicker, western bluebird, a number of squirrel species, martin. So it’s a really important creator of habitat components for other species as well.

Ann Dunsky: Does your work involve partners?

Diana Craig: We started a partnership study with the Institute of Bird Populations. It’s a non-profit group here in the Bay Area, trying to get some good detailed information on how they’re using the landscape. We’re trying to figure out not only how big the home range is but what the components of it are, what’s good habitat for these species. We’ve been radio tagging the individual birds and we put a little radio transmitter on the tail feathers of the adult birds. And this is the first time that black-backed woodpeckers have been radio tagged in California.

Ann Dunsky: Why can’t we use satellite technology?

Diana Craig: They’re too small of a bird to track them via satellite. And so what you’ve ended up doing is tracking individuals. You’re out there walking around on the ground with an antenna following them. And when they start moving really fast it’s hard to—you’re lucky if you can find them again. So as the technology increases we might be able to use satellite or some sort of remote sensing that would allow us to track them once they move, start moving far afield from where we found them but that’s not quite there yet.

Ann Dunsky: What have you learned so far from these studies?

Diana Craig: The preliminary information that we’ve received from this radio telemetry study is the home range size seems to really vary and that was surprising. The likelihood of finding black-backed woodpeckers in any burned area is higher the more snags you have. So obviously they like high densities of snags which makes sense, they have more nesting sites and they have a lot more feeding sites. Little by little we are trying to pull together the information so we have a better idea of what they’re doing here in California so that we can manage them.

Ann Dunsky: Do you use so-called citizen-based science in any of the black-backed woodpecker research?

Diana Craig: There’s an electronic database called “ebird” E-B-I-R-D that people can input their sighting information when they go out and bird watch. And we’ve actually used that, we’ve queried that trying to get more information about where they’re being found. And so that’s a really good thing for people to use. We use that database and other agencies use that database a lot for citizen science types of questions.

Ann Dunsky: Let’s talk more about collaboration and how we work with the public.

Diana Craig: Every project that we do we have to go through an environmental analysis. We involve the public in the myriad of things that they want from our lands. So we’re bringing groups together to talk about what makes sense for this particular landscape and coming to a common understanding of what our objectives are and what might be some ways of getting there and working together that way.

Ann Dunsky: Has our way of collaboration changed?

Diana Craig: When I first came into the agency in 1990, it was quite different than where we’re at now. When I started we had very extreme polarized sides. You couldn’t get the environmental community and the timber industry in the same room together. They did not talk to each other, we were in the middle; it was not a good place to be. And so maybe five years ago we invited anyone we could think of to come and talk about black-backed woodpeckers in California. And out of that we’ve drafted a conservation strategy for black-backed woodpeckers which actually consolidates all the known information and identifies all those information gaps that we still have. So we’re hoping that that document will be a living document that we’d update regularly. It takes a lot of time. That’s the challenge of it, but the projects that come out of it at the end products are so much more useful. And it’s just so much better.

I like working with these outside groups. And they all have their needs and they all are frustrated with us for one reason or another but they want to do good things on the ground, and the areas of commonality are a lot more than you would think and those groups are starting to recognize that and working together. And so the agency being the leaders of getting collaborations together and then being open to that and actually encouraging that, on the ground to do these project development is just amazing - never would have thought that would have happened 20 years ago. [laughter].

Ann Dunsky: Tell me a little about your career with the Forest Service?

Diana Craig: I used to be the wildlife ecologist in the region, which is why I started working on this project and I think that those times in the field that first couple of years were really, really valuable. It was a good time to come into the agency ‘cause it was the time that the Northern Spotted Owl just got listed. So seeing how the agency tried to be strategic in addressing California Spotted Owl to try and keep them from being listed, it was very useful. And we’ve been successful. That’s 23 years ago.

And this fall I got a new job, a promotion, as the Deputy Director of the Ecosystem Management staff. So I supervise 15 people, making sure my staff has the support they need to provide information to the Regional Forester and to the forest and to the Washington office on the programs in our staff area which are wildlife, fish, and rare plants, invasive species, hydrology, soils, timber, silvaculture, range, vegetation and aquatic ecology. So it’s pretty busy. [laughter].

Ann Dunsky: You know restoration is our key focus for the forests here in California. Just what are we restoring our forests to?

Diana Craig: Restoration is very complicated. Because what are you restoring it to is a good question. With changing climates, with climate change and different stressors that we’re moving forward into the future, it might not be possible to go backwards in time. But we are trying to keep the habitats, the vegetation types and the species that we have that live on our lands, we’re trying to keep them there as much as we can given that things are changing and we can’t predict where the future is going to be. We have some ideas but we’re making guesses.

Ann Dunsky: So what’s the current goal?

Diana Craig: Recognizing that fire is a natural part of our system and an important part of them, and so trying to get the systems back where they were naturally, burning at their natural range of severities and frequency will be probably our biggest goal. That’s going to benefit all species because they’re adapted, they’ve evolved under those natural fire regimes. It’s not easy, it’s complicated. And it’s really complicated when you have species that have competing habitats. So species like the black-backed woodpeckers seem to be benefitting from these large fire areas, at least we find them in higher densities as I mentioned, but other species are losing habitat. For example, spotted owl, and martin and fisher which need closed canopy mature forest. They don’t do well when it’s all burned up. There’s no shade and there’s no cover for them and they tend to leave those areas. And so you can’t have all habitats in the same space at the same time, it just doesn’t work. You got a lot of different species, a lot of different habitats, so having that spatial arrangement across the landscape is our objective and our challenge. It’s not simple. So it’s that variation on the landscape where restoration is probably the most challenging because ecosystems are messy. They’re not neat. [laughter] And so you can’t—you need a little bit of everything to manage that variation across the landscape. So that’s always challenging but it’s really the only way we can effectively manage.

Ann Dunsky: When a fire does occur, how do you currently manage for it?

Diana Craig: So when a fire happens in a particular area, we look specifically at what that habitat was before, what we lost in the fire. How much for example of it was habitat for the spotted owl or the martin or the fisher. One of the goals of the project would be to get that habitat back to that for those species as soon as possible. So we want at least part of that area to be restored back as fast as we can to a forested state. But we also realize that we want to maintain habitat for woodpeckers and other species that use dead trees. We also need to make sure that we keep soil productivity and hydrology, and so we keep that in mind as we design these projects.

Another piece of the puzzle is we want to provide products for our industries and so getting trees out is one of our objectives for some of these projects too, that we’ll go to the mills and that’s a very time sensitive thing because these dead, burned trees lose their value very fast. And so if that’s one of your objectives, you want to be able to take those trees to the mill within the first few years post fire.

There are safety issues as well. We don’t want a lot of dead trees falling down and then another fire coming through and re-burning. And we’ve had that happen. It can be really devastating to soil and other resources in addition to putting people at risk and communities at risk. And so it’s a balancing act, making sure that we include all of those things when we design a project. And then monitoring that, so we’ve definitely with this species really trying to do adaptive management where we’re proposing a management strategy that meets a number of different objectives and then monitoring to make sure that they objectives for black-backed and other things are being met. And where they’re not, then we adjust so the next time we learn from our management and we learn as we move forward. So disturbance ecology is really complicated. And you really need to look at it at a landscape scale. So you want a little bit of everything all the time. And that’s really hard to manage. It’s challenging, but that’s what we do. We’re a multi-use agency and we always have to balance a lot of different things on a particular landscape.

Ann Dunsky: Has the mission of our agency changed?

Diana Craig: We still have a multiple-use mandate; we still have to do everything. But really our niche is about restoring habitat, is restoring our forests and making our forest more resilient. And if there’s a byproduct of timber products we want that to happen, we want the industry to continue, we want grazing to continue. But we want to do it in a way that is making our forest more resilient.

We really are professionals. And we have a lot of good information, but we don’t know it all. In fact no one knows it all, there’s a lot of unknowns out there, especially with regard to changing environments and climate change and other stressors that are new. And we don’t have scientific information telling us where things are going to go. So the best thing we can do is to make some educated assumptions or educated guesses as to where we think things are going based on the information, the scientific information that we have now, and then monitoring and seeing if those assumptions and predictions are the way things are going. And so one of the reasons why we’re doing the black-backed woodpecker monitoring and then the study is just that; testing some of our hypotheses, trying to find out more information about this species and others that use burned forests so that we can manage them more successfully. Part of restoration is sort of an adaptive management scheme where you’re monitoring, you’re testing, making some assumptions, seeing maybe you have to tweak your management for future projects and then monitoring that again. So it’s kind of an adaptive loop to restoration.

Ann Dunsky: Anything to add?

I think we’re in a good place. And our ecological restoration focus is just I think that is our role; I think it’s the right role for us to be. And I think our biggest challenge is making sure everyone understands that that encompasses a lot of different things. There’s all sorts of needs for restoration out there: water is a big deal so restoring our meadows and restoring our watersheds and our streams and oak woodlands and sagebrush in addition to some of the fuels reductions stuff that actually needs to happen if we’re going to maintain our resilient systems. It’s a big job out there. But we can work together. We can work with our partners and make some progress. So it’s exciting.

Ann Dunsky: Thank you. One of those partners is the Institute for Bird Populations. Recently we had an opportunity to speak with its executive director Rodney Siegel near his offices in Pt Reyes. Rodney, tell us about your work with black-backed woodpeckers and specifically about their relationship to fire.

Rodney Siegel: To a lot of people fire may seem like an agent of ecological destruction, but there are actually many plants and animal species that are adapted to living in recently burned areas. And the black-backed woodpecker is sort of the poster child of these species. It’s highly adapted to living in recently burned conifer forest stands.

Ann Dunsky: What about fires role in our forests?

Rodney Siegel: Fires occur at different severities and a low-severity fire will burn through and remove a lot of the understory vegetation, but generally not kill the trees, and typically a high severity fire kills almost the entire forest canopy. It leaves many standing dead trees or snags as we call them. What black-backed woodpeckers need are mixed severity fires that include at least patches of high severity burned areas where lots of trees have died and that provides the foraging base that they need where there are a lot of wood boring beetle larvae. Because black-backed woodpeckers primary food source are the grubs or the larval stage of wood boring beetles. And word boring beetles colonize recently burned areas in huge numbers and provide an amazing food source for black-backed woodpeckers that forage on the trunks of the recently killed trees.

Ann Dunsky: So when we are talking about the restoration of our forests, how does this relate to these stands of severely burned trees?

Rodney Siegel: Well it’s important to remember that when we are trying to restore forest, we’re not just restoring timber. We’re trying to restore all the processes and all the biodiversity that exist in a healthy forest. And patches of burned forests are a vital part of a healthy forest. After fire burns a forest stand, if it is a higher severity fire, it leaves a lot of standing dead trees on the landscape. And there is a temptation to harvest a lot of those snags, because they still hold value as timber for the first couple of years generally until the snags start to deteriorate. But for the wildlife that are dependent on those snags, it’s really important to retain as many of them as possible on the landscape to provide shelter as well as food for the animals that dependent on them.

Even though we are seeing an increase in really big, high severity fires in California, high severity burned areas still covers only a very small percentage of the landscape as a whole. And we have to keep that in mind when we’re managing habitat for black-backed woodpeckers because there really isn’t that much of it even though there are some fairly large fires that are burning every year. So what that means is that in some cases, an important part of restoring is actually leaving be. That to the extent that we can leave patches of fire-killed trees on the landscape, we are restoring natural processes in that ecosystem.

Ann Dunsky: Tell me a little bit about the woodpeckers.

Rodney Siegel: Black-backed woodpeckers are really fun to watch in their natural environment, they are endlessly fascinating. They are amazingly adapted to being able to hit their heads against hard wood and they do it thousands of times a day. And they do this for a number of reasons. They do it to dig out wood boring beetle larvae that are deep within the dead trees, they also do it to communicate with one another through taps and drumming, and lastly they do it to excavate their nests.

Ann Dunsky: And what are you trying to learn with your current research?

Rodney Seigel: One of the purposes of our research on black-backed woodpeckers is to quantify how much area or how many snags a given pair of black-backed woodpeckers actually needs in order to reproduce successfully. In addition, some stands are more valuable to woodpeckers than others. And we’re trying to come up with guidelines that will help the Forest Service retain the patches of the black-backed woodpecker habitat that will be most valuable to the woodpeckers.

Ann Dunsky: What have you learned so far?

Rodney Seigel: So what we’ve learned about BBWOs in burned areas, is that in some ways they are not real picky about their habitat. They will forage on almost any tree species that grows in Sierra conifer forest, however there are characteristics of snags thatdo seem to matter a great deal to them. They prefer to forage on larger snags as opposed to smaller snags, they like more severely burned forest stands, and they also like stands where the snags are packed in at a high density as opposed to a lower density.

Ann Dunsky: Where are you with these studies?

Rodney Siegel: We’ve been working on this part of the study for three seasons and we’re almost finished. We have a real good picture now of the habitat that the black-backed woodpeckers are selecting and at the end of the season we are going to be ready to provide the Forest Service with some really specific recommendations about which patches of burned forests are most important to retain on the landscape for the woodpeckers.

Ann Dunsky: And how do you hope the studies will be used?

Rodney Siegel: An important part of restoring healthy forest conditions is insuring that there are patches of burned forests retained on the landscape, so that the species that depend on those conditions have a place to live.

Ann Dunsky: Tell us about your partnership with the Forest Service?

Rodney Siegel: So we started working with the Forest Service in 2008 to monitor black-backed woodpecker populations throughout the greater Sierra Nevada area. And it’s been a terrific partnership. We’re combining scientific investigation with addressing the needs of land managers and it’s really satisfying to be able to see that connection working out so well.

Ann Dunsky: Your thoughts on the agency and its mission?

Rodney Seiegel: The Forest Service has a tremendously difficult task to balance all sorts of needs including habitat preservation for numerous species that require a broad diversity of habitat conditions, many of them are actually in opposition to one another, they can’t coexist in the same place. And then they also have to manage for all kinds of other values besides habitat protection including timber production, recreation, public safety, and air and water quality.

Ann Dunsky: How do you feel about our current management of fire?

Rodney Siegel: For many decades the Forest Service, and other public land managers, thought their objective was to essentially eradicate fire, to prevent fires from burning on the landscape. And in more recent years, there’s been more of an embrace that at least low severity fire can be a productive rather than a destructive force on the landscape. But the black-backed woodpecker and other species it associates with show us that the picture is even a little more complex than that, because black-backed woodpeckers really require mixed or high severity fire to create the components of the habitat that they rely on. And so what it indicates is that the Forest Service needs to be managing not just for low severity fire, but for some degree of mixed and high severity fire on the landscape as well.

Ann Dunsky: But it’s difficult for many people to see fire as anything but destructive.

Rodney Siegel: Fires burning in areas where people live and play and work is a problem, and the most important priority has to be preserving human life and property, but fires burn across large areas and most of the areas that they burn in California actually aren’t heavily used by people and aren’t interspersed with buildings and other property that humans care about. In addition, mixed and high severity burned areas occupy a relatively small portion of the landscape in conifer forests in California. And to the degree that we can preserve as much of that as possible for black-backed woodpeckers and the other species that actually depend on that habitat, we will be doing right by those species.

Ann Dunsky: Anything else to add?

Rodney Siegel: It’s really satisfying to know that the data we’re generating are going to be used by the Forest Service to better manage the populations of the species and my hope is that as a result of our work we are going to see more and more land managers recognizing the importance of retaining large portions of recently burned forests on the landscape without harvesting the snags. And in doing so, they will be able to continue the mosaic of burned and live forests that is so critical for black-backed woodpeckers and other species that occupy the forests.

Ann Dunsky: OK, thank you Rodney and also thanks to Diana Craig for being guests on this episode of Forest Focus. To receive future episodes, please subscribe to our RSS feed. I’m Ann Dunsky and thank you for listening.