The U.S. Interior and Agriculture Departments announced today a bird declared endangered in 1970 has recovered enough to relax federal protections.  The red-cockaded woodpecker has survived in scattered longleaf pine forests in 11 U.S. states.

Not all wildlife advocates agree with federal officials.  Ben Prater, southeastern director for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife reacted to the news by saying nothing released to the public so far, "justifies the change" announced by U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Prater says, "I think the bottom line is we're still short of recovery goals and certainly have not seen threats be abated."

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity calls the bird's recovery, "A tremendous victory for the Endangered Species Act."

In a news release Greenwald states, "Secretary Bernhardt , who is a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and other special interests, has been an absolute disaster for endangered species."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told landowners in April there was a chance of entirely dropping all protections for the species.  Instead they are proposing to list the cardinal-sized woodpeckers as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.  They are also requesting comment on whether to remove the bird from the list entirely.

The Trump administration changed Endangered Species Act rules to end automatic continued protections when a species is moved from "endangered" to "threatened."

Now a a threatened species is only protected if special rules are written to describe such requirements.

The Federal Government is proposing a rule that would protect current habitat, forbidding damage to trees with woodpecker holes, harassment of the birds during breeding season and the use of insecticides near clusters.

Jeff Walters, co-author of the report to the government on the species status says his report specifically states the bird should not be dropped entirely from the list.

The "species status assessment" will be published with the proposal in the Federal Register which triggers a 60 day period for public comment.

Bernhardt and Perdue made the joint statement today at Fort Benning, Georgia one of 13 military installations working to conserve the species.

In a news release Bernhardt says, "Partnering for conservation has improved the condition of the red-cockaded woodpecker.  It also allows us to take this important downlisting step."

The Interior Department revealed the federal government spent $408 million on the species from 1998 to 2016 which made it one of the most expensive on the endangered list.

The birds get their name from red feathers along the sides of adult males' black caps.  The species are the only North American woodpecker that carves living quarters inside live trees.  It literally takes years.  Because the longleaf pines if favors have been logged out and replaced with faster growing pines, the birds range nearly disappeared as the forests went from 90 million acres to about 3 million.

By the late 1970's there were 1,470 clusters, breeding pairs and young males which live nearby and help their parents care for nestlings.  The estimate now is 7,800 clusters.

Walters says, "The trees have to be 60 years old before they're good to forage on and 100 years to be good for cavities."

The red-cockaded woodpecker taps pine sap to protect their babies from snakes and gets their sons to help care for the next clutch of nestlings.

These birds were once found from New Jersey to Florida.  As far west as Texas, north to Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.  These woodpeckers now live in the coastal states from southern Virginia to eastern Texas, parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

MORE TO EXPLORE: Breathtaking Views of Minnesota


More From KDHL Radio