Opinion: Free Market Minute

The Buzz About the Birds

Woodpeckers and landowners pining for a home

In an animal protection vs. property rights clash, landowners and homeowners in some parts of North Carolina have been place on the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s actions are causing landowners to choose between protecting their wealth—real property they own in the vicinity of endangered-list woodpecker’s nesting sites—or, presumably, protecting the endangered birds.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers were listed as endangered in 1970, and continued to be listed after the Endangered Species Act was created in 1973. The birds have specific nesting requirements in the form of old-growth long-leaf pines. Southeastern NC is a prime spot for the nesting trees the birds prefer.

Brunswick County’s Boiling Spring Lakes in particular is a prime woodpecker nesting area, and residents and landowners there have learned that red-cockaded woodpecker clusters dot the entire developed community. The development’s eighty-plus-year-old long-leaf pines are exactly their preferred nesting sites. U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s preliminary investigations revealed 20 nesting clusters, in trees throughout the developed homesite properties and undeveloped lots. This situation isn’t a problem for the birds, they’re doing well, but it’s potentially a huge problem for property owners.

Documented nesting clusters can result in loss of use value to the property owner or that of neighboring owners; a documented nesting site can bring a regulatory halt to clearing and building within a large surrounding area, and destroy the market value of the property. Nests on nearby properties can have the same economic effect on non-bird properties, due to the scope of protective regulation. As an unintended consequence, many owners are scrambling to stay ahead of the birds and the regulators in BSL by clearing any trees that are likely nesting sites. This is a better solution for the property owner, but not for the birds that have been happily co-existing up until now.

Located directly across Rt. 87 from the developed Boiling Spring community and golf course, the Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve offers nearly 6,200 untouched acres of prime old-pine forest—presumably ideal nesting sites. At last count, no nesting clusters were documented in the Preserve. Is it possible that the birds prefer, or even thrive in, an environment shared with homesite development and human activity? If so, the Fish and Wildlife regulations may be losing propositions for everyone, including the birds in currently developed areas.

Consider the other major woodpecker nesting area in North Carolina—Fort Bragg military base. The Fort Bragg site has nearly 120,000 acres of old pine forest, much of it set aside once the birds were discovered. Training operations at the base were restricted to non-nesting areas, but the birds have surprised regulators and Army personnel alike. The birds don’t seem to mind the howitzers, foot traffic, and other training activities much. They continue to nest in areas close to training activities, rather than shun them for the more secluded and protected sites. In fact, bird repopulation is much more robust at Bragg than environmentalists expected. The woodpecker population growth is five years ahead of Fish and Wildlife’s predictions on the Bragg base.

Efforts to protect wildlife through animal protection regulations have both perverse and costly results. The protective restrictions nullify the rights of property owners, and threaten to destroy the market value of their land. Landowners have a rational incentive to remove the endangered species from their property by removing the trees that attract them to the property to nest. The result: owners clear-cut pine trees, including nest trees, as a protective tactic, with adverse consequences for the birds.

What can or should we do to preserve animal species? Can markets handle this problem? Private ownership has traditionally been the most effective means (e.g., chicken populations), whereas the ‘commons’ has been the worst. And government ownership—protection—through federal lands or restricted use, can seem appealing even though it effectively confiscates private property for a regulatory purpose.

Markets don’t handle these questions very well because, unlike the case of the farmer’s chicken, private property rights have not been established for most wild animal species. Given the incentives the current situation creates, it’s clear that both property owners and wild birds would be better off if they were.

When ‘taxpayer’ costs of regulation start to become costs for a few individual property owners, when land use restrictions apply to ‘me,’ rather than to ‘them’ or ‘everyone,’ the moral imperative argument for animal protection at any cost loses some appeal. Ask the folks in Boiling Spring Lakes.