Obama’s focus on science gives sea bird a reprieve

Marbled murrelet. Courtesy USFWS.

Just six months into Obama’s presidency, we’re already beginning to see just how much we can get done with an administration that values strong scientific evidence. Last week, after years of foot-dragging by the Bush Administration, the White House released a landmark multi-agency government report on the effects of climate change on the U.S. Just a day later, a scientific report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took an important step toward saving one of America’s most vulnerable birds by reaffirming its status as a threatened species.

Marbled murrelets live along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. Named for the delicate marble-like pattern on their breasts, the small seabirds depend on the region’s coastal old growth forests, where they build their nests on natural platforms high in the trees. Marbled murrelets have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1992. That protection slowed the logging of the Pacific Northwest forests on which murrelets depend. But a 2004 review by Bush appointees tried to strip away that safeguard. Finally replacing the 2004 review’s half-truths, this month’s report shows that marbled murrelets need our protection more than ever.

The marbled murrelet population of the Pacific Northwest has dropped 26 percent since 2002, the report states. And the California population has fallen 75 percent since 2003 — bringing it dangerously close to extinction. The report concludes that this precipitous decline “has been largely caused” by logging in late-successional and old growth forests. The marbled murrelet must remain on the threatened species list, and may even become endangered if its population doesn’t stop falling.

While the news is depressing, we can view the report as heartening, too. By retaining the marbled murrelet’s threatened species listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service commits to protecting the future of the species.

Marbled murrelets can’t survive and reproduce in just any tree. Like many animals, murrelets need the older, taller trees of late-successional and old growth forests, and the unique ecological conditions that those forests provide. Humans also need old growth forests, which play a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. The older forests of the Pacific Northwest store more carbon per acre than any other ecosystem on earth. The evidence is clear: our country’s older forests must be preserved.

We must act quickly to protect the marbled murrelet and our mature and old growth forests. And the first step toward effective action is to listen to the kind of scientific truth that this month’s report shows.

photo: Marbled murrelet. Courtesy USFWS.