Courtesy Roy W. Lowe/USFWS
Five environmental groups are suing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife after the agency declined to “uplist” the marbled murrelet from threatened to endangered under the state Endangered Species Act.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission initially voted to reclassify the seabird as endangered in February, which would have required adopting a management plan and survival guidelines for the species on state land.
However, in a move that stirred controversy, the commission reversed its decision four months later at a meeting in Baker City, opting against providing endangered protections for marbled murrelets.
The commission did approve voluntary survival guidelines Aug. 3 for loggers and landowners to avoid harming the birds. The rules, in part, define “suitable habitat” for marbled murrelets as “old-growth, coniferous forest stands that include platform trees, and occur within 35 miles of the Pacific Coast.”
But conservationists say more is needed to prevent the species from potentially going extinct.
Cascadia Wildlands, Defenders of Wildlife, Oregon Wild, the Center for Biological Diversity and Audubon Society of Portland filed a lawsuit Aug. 2 — one day before the commission took action on voluntary survival guidelines.
“The commission’s reversal of its decision to uplist the marbled murrelet just four months earlier ignored science, the law and ODFW’s mission to protect Oregon’s imperiled wildlife,” said Nick Cady, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands, based in Eugene.
ODFW listed the marbled murrelet as a threatened species in 1995. Groups petitioned to list the birds as endangered in 2016, claiming the population has declined by as much as 50 percent near the central Oregon coast.
Marbled murrelets nest in old-growth forests along the Coast Range, where according to ODFW’s own status review, highly suitable habitat declined by an estimated 78,600 acres, or nearly 10 percent, between 1993 and 2012.
“The science is clear and overwhelming,” said Joe Liebezeit, staff scientist at the Audubon Society of Portland. “The June Commission decision unfortunately perpetuates an approach at ODFW that has spanned nearly three decades of the state turning its back on the murrelet and ignoring the science that shows that logging of our older coastal forests under the purview of the state of Oregon is a primary factor in driving this species toward extinction.”
Timber companies disputed the evidence, and worried uplisting would lead to onerous new logging restrictions on state-owned forests.
Sara Duncan, spokeswoman for the Oregon Forest and Industries Council, pointed to a 2017 report by the Northwest Forest Plan Interagency Regional Monitoring Program, which indicated murrelet populations experienced a 1.8 percent annual growth in Oregon from 2001 to 2016.
“The ODFW Commission made the correct decision — they weighed the empirical evidence and stuck to the science,” Duncan said.
Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, added the Legislature has provided additional funding for a 10-year murrelet study through Oregon State University, which will provide new clues on the bird’s nesting and flight patterns.
“The commission is signaling they may wait until real scientific data becomes available, and that is encouraging,” Smith said. “At this moment, we are hopeful the process will work the way it should. But we will continue to ask the commission to make informed decisions that are based in science, not politics.”