Endangered seabird could lose protection

Endangered seabird could lose protection

U.S. ruling on marbled murrelet

By Jane Kay
The San Francisco Chronicle

September 2, 2004

The Bush administration, overriding opinions by the western office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, issued a decision Wednesday that environmentalists said would weaken protection for the marbled murrelet, an elusive seabird.

The ruling, which takes effect immediately, says that the population of murrelets in California, Oregon and Washington is not genetically or ecologically distinct from a larger population that extends through Canada and Alaska.

Environmentalists criticized the decision, saying that if the murrelet numbers in the three states — where fewer live — are lumped together with the greater numbers to the north, the birds could lose existing protection as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Hard to spot by the most avid birders, the dove-sized marbled murrelet breeds high in dark, cool, old-growth redwoods and other conifers and flies to the coastline to feed. They live on the shore when it’s not nesting time.

Along with the northern spotted owl, the seabird has stopped logging on both public and private lands on the Pacific coast. California lists the marbled murrelet as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act.

Fish and Wildlife officials said that in the short term, the new determination will have no effect on logging plans. But after the population in the entire range is assessed, the murrelet could possibly lose its federal threatened status.

David Patte, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, said the decision out of Washington, D.C., overturned an April recommendation by the Pacific regional office, which had advised that the southern murrelets continue to be protected as a so-called “distinct population segment.” They concluded that the birds do differ genetically from their northern cousins, which are found from Puget Sound to the Alaska Peninsula and in the Aleutian Islands.

“There was a change from what the regional panel said,” Patte said. However, he added, because the regional office doesn’t often make such determinations, “it’s not unusual for Washington to make a change in a policy call.”

Esther Burkett, a state wildlife biologist with responsibility for murrelet recovery, said that last year, the California Department of Fish and Game sent a memo to the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying that “the best available scientific information indicates the murrelet is still in need of state listing as endangered in California, and that populations continue to decline.”

In response to Wednesday’s ruling, six environmental groups, including the Portland Audubon Society and Earthjustice, issued a statement warning that the decision was the first step in the delisting of the murrelets in California, Oregon and Washington.

“It’s unfortunately another example of the Bush administration ignoring science and reason so that it can serve its campaign contributors in the logging industry,” contended Cynthia Elkins, program director at the Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville (Humboldt County).

She said the marbled murrelets in the Alaskan Peninsula and the Aleutians are doing better than the Pacific Northwest birds because they nest on the ground and don’t need the ancient forests, which are declining nationwide.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 15,000 to 35,000 murrelets live in the three states, with about 820,000 acres suitable for habitat. About 18 percent of that acreage is in California.

A report prepared for Fish and Wildlife by a private contractor said the murrelet population in the Pacific Northwest declined 10 percent over the last 10 years, with the worst showing in California. Without better protection, the murrelet could be extinct here in 40 years, the report said.