Field Notes: Our Ivory-Billed Connection
The stunning announcement of confirmed sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker—long feared extinct—in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas made worldwide headlines this spring. Behind this story is a little-known account of the role Minnesota played in preserving the remnant of southern Big Woods where the magnificent bird now lives.
In the early 1970s, one of Arkansas' toughest environmental crusades began. It was the fight to save 232 miles of the Cache River and a tributary, Bayou DeView River, from being channelized. Together the Cache and the Bayou serve as wintering grounds for an estimated 800,000 migratory waterfowl.
After a massive flood in 1927, a plan was proposed to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straighten and deepen the waterways to increase drainage of surrounding lands and thereby improve agricultural productivity. After soybean prices soared in the 1960s, U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander from Arkansas got legislation passed which allocated $60 million for the channelization project.
A group of citizens formed the Committee to Save the Cache River in 1972 and filed suit in federal court, challenging the adequacy of the U.S. Army Corps' 12-page environmental impact statement on the proposal.
"I couldn't stand by and watch a bureaucratic federal agency thumb its nose at Arkansas," said Rex Hancock, a dentist from Stuttgart, Ark., explaining why he organized the committee.
The court ruled against the challengers; and the corps began dredging the Cache, even though the case had been appealed and Gov. Dale Bumpers had asked for a delay. The court battle eventually included 35 national environmental organizations, such as the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, and natural resource agencies from eight states in the Mississippi Flyway.
Then-chief of Minnesota DNR Wildlife Roger Holmes received a plea for help from the Arkansas Game and Fish Department. He pledged help from the DNR because of the importance of the Cache River as a wintering ground for Minnesota mallards, blue-winged teal, and other ducks. The Minnesota DNR subsequently filed an amicus curiae—friend of the court—brief in the case over the proposed channelization. Other states in the flyway soon joined in the action as well.
The battle raged until the U.S. Congress cut off funds for the project in 1978, after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study called the plan "the single most damaging project to waterfowl in the nation." Then, in 1979 the Environmental Protection Agency refused to grant a necessary permit to the corps. In 1980 the USFWS announced plans for a 35,000-acre Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Only about seven miles of the Cache River were ever ditched.
Nearly 25 years later, in this very refuge, a kayaker spotted an ivory-billed wood-pecker—perhaps one of the last of these birds anywhere on Earth. The discovery, verified by experts, should hearten all Minnesota conservationists who continue to work to save ducks and other wildlife. Conservation works. And when it does, all of us conservationists may reap much more than we ever intended to sow.
John Schladweiler DNR Wildlife field supervisor