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Here Nessie!Nessie the woodpecker

By Jim Beers
Jim Beers is a retired Refuge Manager, Special Agent, & Wildlife Biologist U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

May 15, 2006
It has been three years since the famous kayaker "spotted" an elusive and, heretofore, extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a flooded Arkansas woodland. No evidence of the existence of this extinct bird has been presented since that time, despite the combined efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cornell University, The Nature Conservancy, and a bevy of birdwatchers and volunteers.

For nearly two years, the reported sighting was kept secret from the general public, while the federal agency (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) obtained millions of dollars from Congress that it then spent to secretly "recover" the bird, while sharing the funds with Cornell and The Nature Conservancy. The past year has seen a continual stream of publicity articles, calling for more funding, more land closure and land purchase, and land easements. Indeed, during both the "secret" two-years and the "public" year, The nature Conservancy has purchased land-control easements from landowners, some of whom knew about the sighting, and others who did not know about the sighting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has closed some federal land, and restricted use and access on other federal land. Environmentalists are calling for 5.5 million acres of Southern bottomland woodlands to be purchased, or otherwise controlled, by federal bureaucracies. But still, after three years there is no proof of the existence of a single ivory-billed woodpecker.

Congress has appropriated millions of dollars. A federal agency has closed and restricted access and use on, a large National Wildlife Refuge that was not made a refuge, to be closed, but to be used. Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy have shared in the millions of appropriated money, and the Wildlife Federation has been skirting the edges of this little group, to try and get some "scraps" for themselves, as the acquisition and control of 5.5 million acres looms on the horizon, and the ruination caused by the spotted owl out West, is to be but a pale prelude of the havoc all these players plan to wreak in the South, with our money and a bad law. All based on a bird that no one can find, no one can prove exists (despite battalions of "volunteers" and technology that rivals that found in Iraq and Afghanistan). All for a bird that is claimed to be shown in a "grainy" video, that most likely is the common and widespread pileated woodpecker, a long way away from the photographer.

"Grainy" photo, controversial interpretation, extinct animal discovery, believers and skeptics; where have we heard this before? The Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, Sasquatch in the Northwest, and the Yeti in Nepal all have the same scenario. There have been scams associated with nearly all of these "sightings" all three of these classical myths. I leave it to you as to your notions about all these critters, but let us focus on what makes this Ivory-billed Woodpecker affair a scandal of major proportions.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a scandal, not because there is controversy about its existence (I have never believed that any survived for 60 years, undetected, in Southern forests). The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a scandal of major proportions because:  
  • Congress appropriated millions of our tax dollars in secrecy, that was unlawful and unethical.  
  • A federal agency secretly schemed with groups that it selected for two years, while denying the public information (hunters, loggers, and others that might have unintentionally harmed a bird). 
  • A selected and favored private university, a favored private land-buying organization, and a few others, used and shared in the "insider" information, and took easements on and (purchased?) private property with public fund support.  
  • Public access and forest use have been restricted, and closed on public lands.  
  • The public and Congress are being led to believe that more land must be eased and purchased by the federal government and their surrogate, The Nature Conservancy, to insure recovery of a bird that none can prove exist!  
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with public funds, grinds out news releases and articles about the bird, as if it exists, to justify more money and more authority to "recover" a non-existent (per the proof) bird.  
  • No audit of the actions of the private land buyers, easement purchases, or government spending is, or will be, available, and records of the whole sordid affair are not granted, even under the Freedom of Information Act.
 How stupid would it have been if Scotland had closed boating and fishing on Loch Ness, to "recover" Nessie? How dumb would it seem if Nepal had closed all access to their portion of the Himalayas, to mountain climbers and grazers, and travel between villages, to "recover" the Yeti? How absurd would it be to close down all access into and travel through, and use of Northwestern woodlands for Sasquatch? (This last one has probably got some Cornell professor, a Nature Conservancy "biologist," and a Forest Service "Native Species" Coordinator thinking bad thoughts!)

Not only would these things have been thought improper and dumb, in these other countries, but how long would the Scots, the Nepalese, or the Washington State folks Seattleites would probably love it tolerate a government that would do those things? How would they react to being kept in the dark for two years? What would be their reaction to three years' worth of looking high and low, and no bird? What do you think would happen to the people who would spend public funds to restrict public lands, and make plans to buy up private lands, secretly, for a bird no one can find or substantiate the existence of? Here in the USA, we meekly accept this treatment by government as our lot in life. We are turning into the nation of sheep, that the Founding Fathers cautioned against.

The thing here isn't that we should argue about the bird, we should argue about government and elites run amok, and politicians throwing our money at them. Let Cornell and Audubon and every Tom, Dick, and Harry birdwatcher sleep in the woods for the next decade (that would keep them out of the rest of our hair), and whistle and hoot to their hearts content, at their own expense. If a bird or birds are found, then let the wheels of government begin their "exceedingly fine" grinding. Until such time, those bureaucrats have plenty to keep them busy, and Congress should keep a cork in the money bucket.

The fact that this even has to be said, says much more about the state of the nation than it does about birds, or Arkansas woodlands.


Jim Beers is a retired Refuge Manager, Special Agent, & Wildlife Biologist U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.



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