By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO - Some members of Congress are ridiculing a proposal to give Endangered Species Act protections to a woodpecker that purportedly thrives on intense wildfires.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on the potential listing of the black-backed woodpecker, which feeds on insects in the dead trees left standing after fires.
The agency said the conservation groups that petitioned to protect the birds presented substantial scientific evidence that they were suffering a loss of habitat because of fire suppression, salvage logging that removes fire-killed trees, and thinning to reduce the intensity of wildfires.
The listing would apply in California's Sierra Nevada mountains and the eastern Cascade Range in Oregon as well as the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. Another Northern Rockies population is not under consideration.
But the proposal drew the scorn of the 42-member Congressional Western Caucus, which included it in its "Bull Report." The caucus notes that nearly 10 million acres across the United States were devastated by wildfires last year, killing 12 firefighters and destroying nearly 2,000 residences.
The bird's listing could affect future efforts to reduce the threat of wildfire in forests, caucus spokeswoman Emily Hytha told the Capital Press.
"I think it's definitely a concern," she said. "You've got to balance conservation with priorities for human safety as well. I think that it's something we're definitely concerned about going forward, how this bird might impact forest management practices."
Hytha said the caucus will likely submit a comment before the June 10 deadline. The caucus includes Republican Reps. John Campbell, Jeff Denham, Kevin McCarthy, Tom McClintock, Devin Nunes and Buck McKeon of California; Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington; Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson of Idaho; and Greg Walden of Oregon.
In its "Bull Report", the caucus ridiculed ecologist Chad Hansen of the John Muir Project, an environmental group, for opining in a 2010 report that large, dead trees left over from wildfires are "the most ecologically valuable habitat features in the forest."
"We should not celebrate destroyed ecosystems, or budget cuts that will force the Forest Service to let more fires burn," the caucus' report said. "Instead, we should be practicing responsible forest management policies that help protect our national forests and families."
Hansen said the woodpecker has already figured in lawsuits to stop salvage logging. He said notions of catastrophic wildfire are "really just politics and ignorance, and reflect outdated thinking."
However, Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resources Council, said the bird didn't need federal protection because it is already getting plenty of new habitat each year from the millions of acres that burn but aren't salvaged.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said the agency's wildfire policy was not changing because the bird was not yet listed as a threatened or endangered species. He said the agency has already taken "science-based actions to protect its habitat."
[The AP contributed to this report.]
Anyone wishing to submit information regarding the populations of the black-backed woodpecker under consideration for listing may do so by June 10 in one of the following ways:
Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov . Search docket FWS-R8-ES-2013-0034 and follow instructions for submitting comments.
U.S. mail or hand-delivery: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R8-ES-2013-0034 Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM; Arlington, VA 22203.