The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the Safe Harbor program in North Carolina in 1995 to reduce conflict between landowners and conservation officials and to encourage private landowners to take steps to benefit endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers on their land.
The program has successfully reduced conflict over conservation and reduced the abandonment of nest clusters, but a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications shows that while the program may have raised landowners’ awareness of and tolerance for their feathered neighbors, it has largely failed to improve breeding success of birds on private lands.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Jennifer Smith and her colleagues compared Red-cockaded Woodpeckers’ breeding success on Safe Harbor properties before and after enrollment with that on control properties, monitoring a total of 55 breeding clusters in the North Carolina Sandhills between 1980 and 2014.
Nest cluster abandonment increased on control properties while remaining constant and negligible on Safe Harbor properties, but other measures of breeding success such as clutch size, nest failure rates, and fledging success were unaffected by Safe Harbor habitat management efforts.
These results suggest that the Safe Harbor program often failed to maintain or increase high-quality foraging habitat for the birds.
Regular fires are essential for maintaining high-quality Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat, and prescribed burns are not feasible on a large proportion of Safe Harbor properties in the Sandhills due to their proximity to residential areas. In addition, the researchers believe that inadequate funding may have limited the Safe Harbor program’s impact.
However, they believe the program and the monitoring efforts that have accompanied it still have value. “The longevity of the research project combined with the initiation of Safe Harbor has had marked benefits because it has allowed us to build relationships with private landowners,” says Kerry Brust, co-author of the paper. “Exchanges with private landowners have presented an ideal opportunity to draw attention to the listed species and the management needed for the persistence of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.”
“This study identifies the great value that Safe Harbor has brought to Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation but also highlights important and daunting limitations of the program,” according to U.S. Forest Service biologist John Kilgo, who works on Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation and was not involved in the study. “As these are primarily related to funding constraints and less stringent habitat management requirements under the program, new and creative approaches will be required if the effectiveness of Safe Harbor is to be improved.”