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Woodpecker whimsy holds up irrigation project

Allan Mueller of The Nature Conservancy sits in a boat in flooded Arkansas woodland, bundled up in heavy camouflage against the spring chill — waiting and listening. Apparently, it has not occurred to him that there are striking similarities between his quest to find the ivory-billed woodpecker and two of the most famous search expeditions ever conducted on Mid-South soil — the snipe hunt and the search for Bigfoot.

As anyone past the age of 21 can tell you, in a snipe hunt, inexperienced campers are asked to capture a non-existent bird in the woods at night, usually while carrying around a plastic bag and making strange noises. In the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, Mueller and a trusty sidekick run amuck in the woods banging two sticks together to simulate the sound of the creature, which hasn’t been officially heard from or seen in 64 years.

In a snipe hunt, however, someone eventually lets the clueless victims in on the hoax and all share a big laugh. Alas, millions of dollars have been spent in the misguided search for the ivory-billed woodpecker since April 2005.

There are also similarities to the search for Bigfoot — the legendary ape-man said to inhabit remote areas of the Pacific Northwest. The creature, said to be 7 feet tall and smelly, has occasionally been spotted in the Arkansas Ozarks, perhaps vacationing. A famous home movie of a female Bigfoot taken in 1967 led to Bigfoot sightings all around North America. Subsequently, Hollywood made millions off Bigfoot movies.

In 2004, a University of Arkansas professor filmed a grainy, blurry four-second video of what was billed as an ivory-billed woodpecker in flight, although many experts believe the bird was the pileated woodpecker, a similar-looking bird that is alive and well. Nonetheless, the video generated additional sightings of the ivory bill. The opportunity for a rash of donations and government funds was too great for any self-respecting, environmental organization to ignore. The Nature Conservancy jumped on the bandwagon with both feet.

But the similarities do end. Snipe and Bigfoot hunts, as entertaining as they are, do not stand in the way of progress. On the other hand, millions of dollars of government money is being wasted on woodpecker whimsy, money that could be spent to insure that human beings continue to thrive.

For example, the search for the woodpecker led to a judge’s decision to shut down an irrigation project to divert water from the White River to rice-producing areas in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie, despite studies which show that the bird would not be affected — if indeed it even exists.

“This is a big bird, Dennis Carman, chief engineer and director of the White River Irrigation District, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “They haven’t found a feather. They haven’t found a pile of dung.” Meanwhile project costs mount while environmental studies on the woodpecker continue to delay the project.

Even leading ornithologists believe the bird is toast. “I think it would be a miracle if it is there,” said Jerome Jackson, professor of ecological sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University. “Any betting person would have to say it’s probably extinct.”

Funny how federal bureaucracies are willing to spend millions on an extinct bird, yet balk at the opportunity to help Arkansas rice producers reduce costs as well as their dependence on dwindling underground water supplies. The ivory-billed woodpecker has left the building, and common sense is not far behind.


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