A seabird that depends on coastal old-growth forests has been designated for greater endangered-species protections in Oregon.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Friday to reclassify the marbled murrelet’s status from threatened to endangered under the Oregon Endangered Species Act. The decision comes five years after a 2016 petition to “uplist” it from its 1995 classification as threatened.
While it signals Oregon’s official position that the bird needs greater protections to avoid extinction, the commission’s 4-2 vote triggers only voluntary conservation measures on the part of private landowners.
Marbled murrelets spend much of their lives at sea, just off the coast. But they nest in the canopy of coastal, old-growth. That places the birds among the Northwest’s more controversy-stirring species, caught between the drive to conserve the region’s diversity of wildlife and their natural habitat and the economic benefits of resource-extracting industries.
The commission, however, was barred from considering economics in determining whether to reclassify the marbled murrelet. Friday’s action represents an acknowledgment that marbled murrelets are in danger of extinction within Oregon, and that coastal, state-owned and managed forests can help with their conservation. The vote also signals the need for greater protections for the murrelets than those currently in place at the state and federal levels.
Commissioner Greg Wolley said the decision “shouldn’t strike fear in people’s hearts,” given that all it does is require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to work collaboratively with other state land management agencies to develop and agree on guidelines to prevent marbled murrelet extinction,
“It’s not like some rules or regulations are coming down on high from somewhere and telling everyone what to do,” said Wolley, a program manager with the city of Portland.
Most of the robin-sized seabird’s population is currently limited to the northernmost reaches of its historic breeding range, which extends south along the Pacific coastline from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to Central California.
Murrelets’ survival depends on old growth; they build their nests in mossy depressions in the branches of large trees — the kind of trees the logging industry prizes. Densely-packed, smaller trees in replanted forests have not provided the kind of habitat that murrelets need to survive.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s biological assessment of the marbled murrelet’s status found its population trend and forest habitat conditions have improved modestly, but other factors bode against the bird’s survival. One of these was the impact of climate change on ocean temperatures, resulting in a drop in fish for murrelets to prey on.
Friday’s action repeats an uplisting vote taken in 2018 by the commission, which reversed course before the bird was officially reclassified.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which pressed for the uplisting, praised Friday’s vote.
“We’re relieved that after so many missteps, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will finally move forward with extending marbled murrelets the full protection of endangered status under state law,” said Quinn Read, Oregon policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
But others, including a state lawmaker whose district includes the southern Oregon coast and nearby forests where marbled murrelets nest, were critical.
“The data clearly supports that the murrelet is rebounding and moving forward with regard to their population,” said Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, who argued that uplisting was not warranted.
Meghan Tuttle, a manager with Weyerhaeuser, said that even if private land owners like her corporation aren’t required to increase conservation efforts, the uplisting was unnecessary and would have negative impacts on rural communities.