Marbled murrelet

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to reclassify the marbled murrelet as an endangered species on July 9.

SALEM — The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has again voted to grant endangered species protections for the marbled murrelet, a small seabird that nests in old-growth forests along the Pacific Coast.

Environmental groups initially petitioned the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2016 to “uplist” the marbled murrelet from threatened to endangered under the state Endangered Species Act, arguing the bird is in danger of going extinct.

Commissioners voted in favor of uplisting in February 2018, but abruptly changed course four months later — reversing their decision and maintaining the marbled murrelet’s classification as a threatened species.

Petitioners sued, and a Lane County Circuit Court judge ruled the commission violated state law by not providing an explanation for the sudden reversal. ODFW agreed to revisit endangered species protections for the marbled murrelet in August 2019.

While a final resolution was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission voted 4-3 on July 9 to uplist the bird.

State agencies that own, manage or lease lands with marbled murrelet habitat now have 18 months to develop and submit an endangered species management plan to the commission for approval. The Oregon ESA does not apply to private lands.

Conservationists cheered the outcome, saying the marbled murrelet continues to face serious threats in Oregon from climate change, ocean warming, wildfires and logging across its nesting habitat.

“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.

Opponents countered that uplisting was not warranted, with current protections in place that have led to modest gains in both marbled murrelet habitat and population.

Marbled murrelets were listed as threatened under the federal ESA in 1992, and listed as threatened by ODFW in 1995.

ODFW staff recommended against uplisting the species, pointing to data in its latest biological assessment that shows marbled murrelet populations increased roughly 2.2% per year between 2000 and 2019.

High-probability nesting habitat also increased from 1993 to 2017, according to the assessment, from 471,220 acres to 517,686 acres, or 9.9%.

Sara Duncan, spokeswoman for the Oregon Forest and Industries Council, a trade group representing private forestland owners and timber companies, said the commission’s decision “flies in the face of reality and is a slap in the face for rural Oregonians who have made decades of costly investments to protect species at the expense of their livelihoods.”

“The only conclusion one can draw about a decision to designate a species whose population is increasing as ‘endangered’ is that it had everything to do with politics and absolutely nothing to do with science,” Duncan said in a statement.

Seth Barnes, director of forest policy for the OFIC, testified during the commission’s virtual meeting, saying that acreage taken out of timber production and set aside for species habitat over the last two decades “have only just begun to show their early returns.”

John Sweet, a Coos County commissioner and vice chairman of the Council of Forest Trust Land Counties, specified more than 3 million acres of state and federal forestland that has been taken out of timber production, impacting rural coastal communities.

“Keep in mind, this has been at the cost of some of our other populations, our family and children, who too often live in poverty due to lack of job opportunity,” Sweet said during his testimony.

However, the same biological assessment conducted by ODFW also suggested future threats such as climate change, adverse ocean conditions, predation and oil spills could put the bird at greater jeopardy.

“Under the best of situations,” the agency wrote, “a small population may be able to sustain itself, but if the cumulative effects or even a single catastrophic event occurs, a smaller population may be unable to recover to previous levels.”

That is especially true for a species like the marbled murrelet, according to ODFW. Marbled murrelets do not breed every year, and when they do, they lay only a single egg, meaning populations may not be able to recover from catastrophe quickly or easily.

“There’s nothing theoretical about the kind of catastrophe that could doom marbled murrelets to extinction,” Read said. “We have to act now.”

Sristi Kamal, senior representative for the Northwest Program at Defenders of Wildlife, said the uplisting decision was a long time coming.

“Marbled murrelets face significant habitat loss due to excessive logging, and warming ocean waters due to climate change is impacting the species' ability to forage and nest,” Kamal said. “We applaud the commission for taking a big step in the right direction, which will give this species a much-needed opportunity to recover in the state.”

As part of the uplisting requirements, the Fish and Wildlife Commission also voted 5-1 to adopt amended survival guidelines as proposed by staff.

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