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Colorado CollegeBulletin | March 2006

The Ultimate Transition Coming Back from Extinction?

Cornell University ornithologist Peter Wrege ’73 wasn’t seeking the spotlight. “I’m sort of a mediaphobe,” he says. But he expected a hullabaloo when word got out about the team of wildlife biologists assigned to search for the ivory-billed woodpecker — a species thought for 60 years to be extinct. “The obvious implications for the birding world and conservation made it clear that the story would stir things up,” he says.

With 30 years of field experience, Wrege was assigned to lead one of two 2004 search teams. His group focused on the huge White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas — a labyrinth of bayous, rugged terrain, and mature bottomland forest that seemed like perfect habitat for an ivory-billed woodpecker, but where no sightings had yet been confirmed.

As the search entered a fifth month without clear evidence of ivory-bill activity in the White River area, warm weather brought frequent encounters with cottonmouth snakes and black bears, as well as unpredictable water conditions. “I had an enthusiastic bunch of young people to work with,” he says. “Every morning they seemed to head out with that little thrill that this could be the day they would see the ivory-bill.”

After thousands of hours, the two dozen searchers had only a handful of confirmed sightings, some tantalizing recorded calls, and a blurry four-second video. “As an author on the original Science paper, I have been grilled by skeptics,” Wrege says. “It’s frustrating that the video is the only tangible evidence that a critic can analyze, while corroborating evidence — observations by extremely good ornithologists, audio recordings of sounds consistent with an ivory-bill — is generally dismissed as unimportant. The scrutiny is not unwelcome; we are professional scientists and are used to critical review and re-analysis. But the popular press is not nearly as good at keeping facts straight as it is at encouraging controversy.”