Optimism takes flight with woodpecker

Sunday, July 10, 2005

This spring, I was flabbergasted to hear the news.

It spread as if on wings. It was more than a wildlife story, it was a media event, and it symbolized hope for conservation efforts and the benefits those efforts bring to people. I am referring to the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas. Long thought to be extinct, this monarch of the swamp has been quietly eking along in the backwater swamps of the White River basin in Arkansas.

Old-timers used to call this the "Lord God Bird" because its large presence would make an observer exclaim "Lord, God what a bird!"

Infrequent sightings were always inspiring. At 22 inches from bill to tail, this bird is as big as a duck. Clearly a monster woodpecker like this left an impression. It had been leaving that impression even into the distant past. Prehistoric mound builders used the ivory-bill's image as decoration for pottery, jewelry and carvings. The woodpecker's ivory bills were prized for adornment by historic tribes.

But does the ivory-bill represent more than an ecological oddity? Can it do more than impress us? Is it more than a management challenge for bird conservationists? I argue it is. Even though its bills can no longer be a possession and hunting season will never open, the Lord God Bird serves as a symbol for two reasons.

First, this battleship of a bird requires space to live in. Lots of it -- a large expanse of healthy, functioning habitat, in fact. Healthy land for big magnificent woodpeckers also means healthy quality of life for people. When sensitive and uncommon species can make a living in their preferred habitat, that is a sign of ecosystem health. The same ecosystem people use and make a living off.

We all live off the land. The reality of that statement is a matter of awareness. It may be through soil fertility for our crops, lumber products from our forests or even the economic benefits from conservation activities like hunting equipment sales, timber industry commerce or recreation outdoors. Ecosystems are complex and have hidden connections to everything we do on the land. Our connection to the land is as solid as it ever has been, and the ivory-bill woodpecker symbolizes the potential for sustainable use of the resources formerly abused in decades past.

Second, the ivory-bill reminds us that even when a story looks bleak, it is the occasional surprise that validates optimism. Conservation of endangered species is not fruitless, and it is not impossible. Mainly what it takes is time to heal the scars of land abuse.

I was one of many conservation-minded citizens who was truly excited to hear about the ivory-bill's rise from extinction, because I had put a check mark in the "gone forever" box. But with this recent turn of events, I am elated to be wrong and am more optimistic than I ever have been about conservation efforts.

We still have a lot of species in trouble here in Missouri. Prairie chickens, least terns, alligator snapping turtles and more need conservation efforts. To put a fine point on it, one-fourth of our vascular plants and one-fifth of our backboned animals are listed by Missouri Department of Conservation scientists as endangered, threatened or sliding in that direction. The top three reasons for this are habitat loss, invasive species and pollution.

Few living things make it back from the brink of extinction. A century ago, turkey, wood ducks and beaver were nearly extinct but brought back through conservation efforts. In recent memory, there's been the bald eagle, the California condor and the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

Now there's the ivory-bill. Long may its wide wings stretch as a symbol for conservation projects.

A.J. Hendershott is an outreach and education regional supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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