June 19, 2019, 11:45 pm
Red –cockaded Woodpeckers and Safe Harbor Agreements in SC

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was one of the largest and most influential pieces of conservation legislation passed in the U.S. The law not only protects individual species determined to be threatened or endangered, it also protects critical habitat for these species. Few people know that one of the first species to be listed and receive federal protection under this act was the Red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis).

The Red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) is a non-migratory bird native to the Lowcountry that is named for the small patch of red feathers males display between the black crown and white cheek patch on their head. Their primary habitat consists of cavities within mature longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) stands, often over 40 years in age, with a basal area (BA) requirement of 40-70 sq. feet/acre. They have also been found to survive in loblolly (Pinus taeda) and slash (Pinus elliotti) pines that are of large enough diameter and proper form. By the 1970s, intense logging, fire suppression, and detrimental silviculture practices destroyed over 97% of their habitat making the RCW one of 13 species to be deemed a species of highest concern.

Despite early federal protection, South Carolina did not have specific legislation to assist in the protection and recovery of the species. In 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), along with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), signed the South Carolina Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Agreement granting the management and oversight of the program to SCDNR. This voluntary agreement is between private, non-federal landowners and SCDNR, and is designed to encourage their participation in the recovery of the species. Landowners work with SCDNR to establish management requirements necessary to maintain baseline RCW populations on their property. In return, by establishing and maintaining these land management practices, landowners are protected from accidental or unintentional losses of RCW habitat so long as the land management methods being implemented are not in conflict with the recovery of the species. A popular example of this protection afforded to a landowner is the loss of an RCW cavity tree from prescribed fire. Similar actions that As long as landowners fulfill the conditions of their land management agreement, corrective or punitive actions administered by the USFWS are unnecessary. This instills a sense of security for the landowner regarding future land use, and frequently does not require the landowner to shift their land management practices if they already provide beneficial habitat improvements for RCW’s.


In order to register in a Safe Harbor Agreement, a landowner must work with SCDNR to establish a baseline RCW population on the property. Additionally, they will determine land management activities the landowner must perform in order to prevent dropping below the baseline population. During this time, it can also be determined if the landowner is eligible for federal funding through the Landowner Incentive Program to help them complete their land management goals. While the goal of a Safe Harbor Agreement is to increase the RCW population by properly managing pine habitat, the landowner is afforded flexibility in their land management practices. However, the landowner must inform SCDNR and USFWS 60 days prior to performing management activities that deviate from the Safe Harbor Agreement.

Safe Harbor Agreements benefit the RCW population by helping to restore and enhance their nesting and foraging habitats through the reintroduction of fire and minimization of short-rotation forestry. Since South Carolina formed its Safe Harbor program in 1998, the program has been very successful with over 300 groups of RCWs on private lands. This number currently accounts for about 75% of all RCWs on private lands in the state of South Carolina. Furthermore, the program has been widespread with 24 of the 27 counties having enrolled participants. The Safe Harbor program not only works to enhance the old growth, fire maintained pine stands that the RCW requires, but it also improves relationships between the private sector and government organizations in a mutual effort towards conservation. More importantly, Safe Harbor Agreements allow private landowners to have an integral part in the rehabilitation of RCW populations, and have shown over the last 15 years to stabilize and reverse the decline of the species in South Carolina. Based on current recovery estimations, down-listing of the species is still not expected until at least 2050 and delisting until 2075.