Marbled Murrelet retains federal protections

Marbled Murrelet. Courtesy USFWS.

A tiny Northwestern seabird got some great news on Jan 20. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the marbled murrelet is still in need of federal protection and declined petitions to remove the bird from the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service cited declining populations in Oregon, Washington, and California as proof that the marbled murrelet was not ready to be removed from the protective measures that have been in place since the early 1990s.

The decision came in response to a petition filed by the American Forest Resource Council and other interests to have the bird removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Their claim was based on a 2004 report which declared the rapidly declining population in Oregon, Washington, and California was not distinct from that of Canada, and did not need to be under federal protection. This report, however, was found to be “fundamentally flawed,” and last week’s decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service was based on a 2009 study that determined the tri-state birds are a population group distinct from the Canadian birds.

Marbled murrelets in the contiguous United States have experienced a dramatic decline, last year’s study found: 26% of the population in the Pacific Northwest disappeared between 2002 and 2008, leaving only 18,000 birds in the region as compared to Canada’s 66,000. The 2009 study also cited greater breeding success in Canada and differences in the amount of the bird’s habitat between the two regions as evidence for two distinct population groups.

The murrelets depend on old-growth forest close to the ocean for their nesting habitat. These birds spend most of their life out on the sea, but return to land in order to reproduce. They lay their eggs in the lichen and moss of large old-growth Douglas fir, Sitka Spruce, and hemlocks and rely on the safety of these trees to raise their young. The species was originally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1992 due to logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. The protections put in place at the time dramatically slowed logging in the region, though other factors including the effects of climate change on the ocean and continuing habitat loss are credited with the decline of the tri-state population.

The marbled murrelet, like the northern spotted owl and many other wildlife species needs the towering old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to survive. These forests are important to humans as well providing pristine drinking water for our communities, wonderful recreational opportunities, and helping control floods through natural water storage. The strong, federal protection extended to the bird by the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to protect this dwindling resource and work towards a healthy habitat for the marbled murrelet, and all creatures who find benefits from these forests, including us Pacific Northwesterners.

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