The Louisiana Statewide Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Program

The Louisiana Statewide Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Program

The Federally-endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) (RCW) is the only southeastern woodpecker to excavate its roost and nest cavities exclusively in live pine trees. The RCW is approximately the size of the northern cardinal. (Add link to Natural Heritage spp. Account here).  It is distinguished from other ladder-back woodpeckers by its large white cheek patch (auricular) and its cooperative breeding strategy.

The RCW has very narrow habitat requirements. It requires pines at least 60-years old (preferring 80-100-year old trees which are infected with red heart fungus). RCWs cannot persist in the long term without suitable cavity trees and adequate foraging habitat. Herein lays the crux for private landowners. They must retain a minimum stocking level of 3000 sq. ft. of pine basal area of trees 10 inches and greater diameter at breast height, on at least 75 ac. for each RCW family group on their property. These guidelines may pose a disincentive for most landowners to manage for the RCW. The solution? Safe Harbor.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) with its partner the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) finalized a programmatic safe harbor agreement for the state of Louisiana. LDWF received a permit from the USFWS on January 25, 2005 to administer this program. This permit allows LDWF to enroll non-Federal properties in the program by entering into Safe Harbor Management Agreements (SHMAs) with landowners.  The SHMA is the document that, once approved by LDWF, outlines a cooperating landowner’s baseline number of RCW groups, voluntary RCW management activities and timetables for their implementation.  In exchange for entering into a SHMA, landowners receive a Certificate of Inclusion which authorizes the incidental take of any RCW group or habitat that is above the landowner’s baseline responsibilities. 

The baseline number, or number of RCW groups present on the property at the time of enrollment, is determined by a survey completed by qualified personnel experienced in RCW surveys.  The baseline number of groups can be zero and is subject to approval by LDWF and the USFWS.  Upon signing their SHMA the landownervoluntarily agrees to manage for their baseline RCW groups and associated foraging habitat.  If, after entering into a SHMA, the number of RCW groups increases on the landowner's property due to their beneficial and voluntary management, they are not responsible for those above-baseline groups and may, if they choose, remove their cavity trees and associated foraging habitat. If a landowner chooses to exercise this option, they must give LDWF a 60-day written notice so that LDWF and/or the USFWS can give a consolidated and coordinated effort to capture the affected RCWs and translocate them to a recovery population. This shows LDWF's and USFWS's commitment to landowners’ management objectives and to the survival and recovery of this endangered species.

When signing their SHMA, landowners voluntarily agree to manage for the RCW, by choosing 1 or more of 5 management options, each of which provides a net conservation benefit to the RCW. These management options are: forest management, hardwood midstory control, prescribed fire, RCW population management and RCW cavity installation and maintenance.  LDWF understands that these management actions can be costly and helps landowners indentify cost-share programs that can provide financial assistance for RCW management activities.  Please visit the links at the end of this article to explore the many opportunities for financial assistance in RCW habitat restoration and management. 

The management strategies associated with the RCW Safe Harbor Program benefit a host of other wildlife species associated with mature pine habitat, including: bobwhite quail, eastern wild turkey, Louisiana pine snake and gopher tortoise (just to name a few).  RCW management also promotes healthy mature pine stands, which have exceptional value in the pole and saw timber market.  With careful planning, RCW management and profitable timber harvest can be compatible uses of a forested tract.  RCW management activities also result in an open understory which may allow for further economical benefit in pine straw raking. 

The Louisiana Statewide RCW Safe Harbor Program exemplifies LDWF's commitment to providing incentives for endangered species management on private lands.  We are committed to assisting landowners in developing a strategy for RCW management on their land that balances their forest management objectives.

For detailed information on the Louisiana Statewide RCW Safe Harbor Program and the Louisiana Landowner Incentive Program or to receive a copy of the Louisiana Statewide RCW Safe Harbor Agreement by mail, contact Eric Baka, RCW Safe Harbor Coordinator at (318) 487-5890 or via email at


Current cost-share programs available for management activities which benefit the RCW are as follows:

Forest Management: 

Hardwood removal: 

Prescribed burning: 

There are also cost-share programs which provide financial and technical assistance for general wildlife habitat restoration and/or longleaf pine restoration may be utilized for RCW habitat restoration:


Please visit the links below for further information:

RCW and Longleaf Pine Info:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Clemson Field Office  RCW Information.

All About Birds  Cornell’s RCW Summary  USFWS RCW Brochure.

Longleaf Pine Ecosystem  The Longleaf Alliance.  “The Gopher Tortoise Handbook” contains much information on the longleaf pine ecosystem.

Contact Us | Louisiana NRCS  For information on WHIP and EQIP contact this local Alexandria NRCS Office.