Mike Wintroath  /  AP
Douglas Zollner, from the Nature Conservancy, looks for the rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer Jeremy Whiley motors through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge near Dixie, Ark. Locals hope tourists will arrive to do the same thing.
updated 5/5/2005 10:03:05 AM ET 2005-05-05T14:03:05

If the ivory-billed woodpecker was magic to early-day American Indians, perhaps it can work some magic for the modern-day residents trying to scratch out a living in this poor Delta region.

The striking bird — not extinct after all — has already attracted eager birdwatchers to the dying communities that dot the area. Rooms at a nearby Days Inn are filling up for fall — prime season for birders.

“I wish I had a place to get T-shirts made up with the woodpecker on them that say Cotton Plant,” said Ester Hicks, who runs Nannie’s Kitchen cafe.

Ornithologists announced last week that an ivory-billed woodpecker, believed extinct since 1944, was living in a swamp in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Arkansas’ prime bird-watching season ended when the trees leafed out last month, but wildlife officials still have noticed more traffic.

Officials see tourists, money
Gov. Mike Huckabee said Wednesday that the woodpecker’s discovery will be “a huge benefit to tourism. Look for a lot of folks to be coming to Arkansas and maybe spending their good old money.”

Massachusetts Audubon Society
Ivory-billed woodpeckers are seen in artwork produced by conservationist John J. Audubon.
David Goad, deputy director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, predicted the bird, considered the Holy Grail of birdwatchers, will bring thousands of visitors. “This will mean millions of dollars for this part of the world,” he said.

The federal government has pledged $10 million for the preservation of the bird, described by some as a pileated woodpecker on steroids because of its nearly 3-foot wing span. Over the years it’s had many nicknames, including the “Lord God” bird. It was sought by Indians for its bill, believed to have magical powers, and hunted for its feathers to adorn women’s hats. Loss of habitat was its main threat, though.

Jim Huter, a retired forester from Tucson, Ariz., altered a cross-country trip so he and his wife could stop by the refuge with the slight hope of seeing the bird.

“It would be totally amazing,” Huter said. “In the first place, I would hope I was able to recognize it. It sounds like people were just getting a fleeting glimpse. If I saw one and recognized it, it would just blow me away.”

Until a kayaker from Hot Springs spotted the woodpecker in February 2004, the last known sighting was in 1944 in northern Louisiana. During that time, the communities near the Cache River also faded.

Town's population halved
Cotton Plant is in Woodruff County, one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the country. The town has lost nearly half its population since 1950 — down to 960 — and one out of every four people in Woodruff County lives below the poverty level.

“If you look up and down this street, we don’t have any stores,” said Doris Wright, standing outside the Cotton Plant post office and surveying the length of boarded-up, vine-covered structures that line Main Street. “We know what a hard place the Delta is.”

Before the trains stopped running 40 to 50 years ago, Cotton Plant boomed with a population of 1,838 and, “you couldn’t find a place to park on a Friday or Saturday night,” said Hicks, relaxing in a booth at Nannie’s Kitchen, where frog legs is the advertised special.

Wright and others hope someone will consider opening a new store and perhaps a bed-and-breakfast catering to birders. The town is relatively easy to reach, just 10 miles off Interstate 40, between Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn.

“Instead of us always being put down as a poverty-stricken place, this is something that picks us up,” Hicks said.

Some see downside to preservation
Hicks says locals dream of new jobs, but also fear environmental rules might curtail fishing and duck-hunting that currently drive much of the local economy.

Since the announcement, game and fish officials closed 5,000 acres of popular hunting and fishing areas within the Cache wildlife refuge for the bird’s protection.

“I’m sure there are some commercial fishermen and some subsistence fishermen, who fish to feed their families, living there,” said Keith Stephens, spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “It’s a Catch-22. You want to have an area where people can go and research, but it will restrict some fishing and hunting.”

Stephens said 55,000 acres of the refuge remain open offering plenty of other fishing holes and hunting spots.

Lewis George and Curtis Stovall, who have fished the area’s waterways for years, said they have been told they can no longer fish where they like. As the two men and a third friend showed off a large catch one recent afternoon, George lamented: “They stopped us from fishing in the bayou.”

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