"Although the re-discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker is great news, continued under-funding of our national wildlife refuges threatens to thrust this species into extinction for real this time," said Evan Hirsche, president of the NWRA.
The ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest in the United States, was squeezed out of its southeastern old-bottomland habitat due to the fragmentation and harvesting of contiguous forests. Presumed extinct by many, there have been unconfirmed sightings in a number of southeastern states, but no confirmation of live birds for many decades.
"It's not surprising that the ivory-billed woodpecker has gone undiscovered for so long. With massive staffing shortages and a $2 billion funding backlog, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service simply can't know everything happening within their refuges," said Hirsche.
The 56,000 acre Cache River National Wildlife Refuge is one of 545 refuges located in all states and territories that total 100 million acres, nearly 20 million more than the National Park System. Yet despite the size and importance of the Refuge System to the conservation and recovery of species, refuges struggle to meet even the most basic needs. Two hundred refuges have no staff, and roughly half are missing a staff biologist.
"We are lucky that the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was set aside in the mid-1980s when it was. The extensive forests there have obviously served as a true refuge for this bird," said Hirsche.
The NWRA, along with 20 other national conservation and recreation organizations through the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement have called on Congress and the Administration to nearly double the Refuge System budget to $700 million annually, yet the FY06 Administration request falls woefully short of what's needed to keep pace with needs.
"Unless we begin to see a concerted long-term effort to increase Refuge System funding, we'll have more surprises, but rarely positive like the recent discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker," said Hirsche. "While we are encouraged that there are real chances that ivory-billed woodpeckers might continue to live, breed, and spread at Cache River NWR and beyond, the future health of the refuge system is also in question."