SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Over the objections of the U.S. Forest Service, wildlife officials in California are taking steps at the state level to protect a rare woodpecker partly because the federal agency won't stop logging the bird's ever-shrinking habitat in burned stands of national forests in the Sierra Nevada.

The California State Fish and Game Commission recently voted to add the black-backed woodpecker to the list of species that are candidates for protection under the California Endangered Species Act, launching a year-long status review of the bird that is at the center of an ongoing legal battle in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over salvage logging in the area where 250 homes burned near Lake Tahoe in 2007.

Commissioner Michael Sutton said he's satisfied there is a "substantial possibility" the woodpecker could end up being listed as threatened. He said his support for the move was based in part on correspondence from the Forest Service indicating the agency doesn't believe the bird needs any protection and that even if it did, USFS wouldn't be required to provide it.

The Forest Service had designated the black-backed as the indicator species for all fish and wildlife dependent on burned forests across the Sierra, from north of Tahoe to south of Yosemite. It's the same kind of designation agency biologists gave the northern spotted owl in the 1980s to serve as a barometer of the overall health of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

But, said Sutton, it has become clear "their management policy has changed recently. They now permit, under relevant forest management plans, 100 percent salvage logging of burned areas, which is the preferred habitat of this species.

"That may be fine for the Forest Service," said Sutton, after moving to add the woodpecker to the state's list of candidate species on Dec. 15. "Their mandate is multiple-use, including timber harvest... Our mandate is stewardship of wildlife."

Commissioner Daniel Richards was the lone dissenter in the 3-1 vote advancing the listing petition by the Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project in Cedar Ridge, Calif.

"I do believe it is a rare species, but that doesn't make it is endangered. It has been rare forever," Richards said. "We get these every month. Everybody would like for us to list everything as endangered ... to burden our department with further analysis."

Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, said the action was significant because "they are acknowledging that not only is there a total lack of protection from clear cutting on private lands, they (the woodpeckers) also don't have any protections on Forest Service land to fall back on."

"It's the first time anybody has acknowledged that a species is impacted by post-fire salvage logging," added Justine Augustine, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity based in San Francisco. "They accepted the fact there is substantial evidence there is a problem here and we're going to have to step in."

Hanson, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Davis, helped persuade the Forest Service in recent years to designate the black-backed woodpecker the indicator species for all wildlife dependent on burned forests throughout the Sierra and has been citing the agency's own research for years in his bid to show the bird may already be on its way to extinction.

"Even in burned forests, the black-backed is one of the rarest birds in California," he said, adding there is "no dispute its habitat has declined dramatically since the 19th and early 20th century due to fire suppression."

As a result, such post-fire habitat now comprises less than one-half of 1 percent of the Sierra forests the woodpecker once inhabited, he said.

But Forest Service officials say there is no evidence that the bird's population itself is actually in a state of decline. While Hanson maintains there may be as fewer than 1,000 black-backs left in the Sierras, the agency believes there are many more.

Randall Moore, Pacific Southwest regional boss for the Forest Service based in Vallejo, presented the state commission earlier this year with a 16-page memo questioning the "degree and immediacy" of the threat to the black-backed from Forest Service practices. He said more information was needed, and that "management of National Forest System lands is inherently complex given the responsibility to manage public natural resources for a wide variety of often conflicting threats and opportunities."

Halting or significantly restricting fire suppression activities - even away from homes - the memo noted, is "unlikely to be implementable due to social and political resistance."

Augustine said it was "inappropriate, at best" for the Forest Service to imply the state should change its findings to accommodate the Forest Services' "complex" management. He said the wildlife commission's decision will help put the spotlight on the service's new legal stance that even if the bird did warrant added protection, the agency no longer is required to provide it.

The agency was long bound by the National Forest Management Act, which President Reagan signed into law in 1982, which established the so-called "viability rule." It stipulated that the Forest Service would attempt to maintain a viable population of all species found on individual forests. But the Forest Service says the rule is super-ceded by the 2007 forest plan amendment, which, still provides general guidelines for protection of fish and wildlife. But, according to the agency's interpretation, it does not prohibit projects such as salvage logging just because the potential impact to a particular species' habitat could threaten the sustainability of its population on that individual national forest.

Hanson said the change in position represents a "significant threat of extinction to a number of species in the coming decades. It is an outrageous and dangerous position for the agency to take, and I think it had an impact on the commission's decision."

The issue will be front and center in late January or February when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the same two environmental groups' appeal challenging a federal court's refusal to halt the logging at Lake Tahoe.

The Forest Service maintains it met all the law's requirements for the Angora fire project, intended to speed restoration of the burned area as well reduce future fire threats over nearly 3,000 acres. The agency said it was made clear in the environmental assessment that its proposed action could reduce potential black-backed woodpecker territories, and that was its "only project-level analytical duty.'"

Given the federal agency's position, Hanson said, state protection of the bird may be its only hope.

"Basically what the commission did is stand up for the science on this species," he said. "I know it doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to go through with a listing a year from now, but they did the right thing here."