Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
PORTLAND — Oregon’s wildlife regulators have “uplisted” the marbled murrelet from a threatened to an endangered species, which will likely result in stricter logging limits on state forestland.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 to upgrade protections for the coastal bird at its Feb. 9 meeting in Portland.
The change to endangered status means that scientists at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is overseen by the commission, must complete “survival guidelines” for the marbled murrelet by June.
Those guidelines are expected to further restrict logging in the bird’s suitable habitat, if existing protocols for state forestland are found to be insufficient.
Though Oregon’s version of the Endangered Species Act only applies to property owned by the state government, some private forestland owners worry the uplisting will effectively move Oregon toward more stringent regulations for all forests.
Bruce Buckmaster, a commission member who voted against the change, said he shared their concerns.
“They’re old enough to know it’s an ironclad law they will undoubtedly be affected,” said Buckmaster, a retired business owner.
Commission members originally considered ordering the agency to develop those survival guidelines without uplisting the species.
This proposal, set forth by commissioner Bob Webber, would have had the effect of creating a roadmap for the murrelet’s recovery that wouldn’t be legally enforceable.
However, the motion resulted in 3-3 deadlock vote, after which Webber changed his mind and supported the uplisting.
“I stated my preference but my least favorite option would be to do nothing,” said Webber, an attorney.
The federal government listed marbled murrelets as threatened in 1992 and Oregon extended the same status to the birds three years later.
Washington and California consider the species endangered.
Marbled murrelets are known as the “enigma of the Pacific” because so little is still known about their life cycle, said Christina Donehower, strategy species coordinator for ODFW.
“Actual nests for marbled murrelets are extremely hard to find,” she said.
The birds forage for fish and invertebrates in the Pacific Ocean but lay their eggs in depressions formed on the branches of large conifer trees, typically found in “old growth” forests, she said.
Nests are found as far as 50 miles inland along the coast, meaning the species must travel up to 100 miles round trip to feed its young.
Large conifer habitat for the species in Oregon’s coastal forests declined by 58 percent between 1936 and 1996, she said.
Populations of the bird sharply fell in 1996 but the trend was stable to slightly positive between 2000 and 2015, when 11,000 marbled murrelets were estimated to inhabit Oregon, Donehower said.
However, demographic models for the species project it has an 80 percent chance of extinction in Oregon within the current century, she said.
The species is doubly challenged because, apart from specialized forest nesting habitat, it’s vulnerable to fluctuating ocean conditions.
The bird’s reproductive potential is low to begin with, as it reaches sexual maturity relatively late and typically only lays one egg per year.
If food sources in the ocean are inadequate for fledging murrelets, the adults won’t attempt to breed, as occurred in 2017.
“They might not be as resilient as other species to changing conditions,” Donehower said.
Oregon State University is conducting a 10-year study of marbled murrelets that involves capturing the birds at sea, outfitting them with tracking tags and monitoring their forest nests.
Multiple woodland owners and timber industry representatives urged the commission against uplisting the species until the OSU research sheds more light on its life cycle.
Jim James, executive director of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, said the uplisting would be premature before the science is better understood.
“It’s not urgent that you make a decision today,” he said. “Murrelet populations are stable.”
An uplisting will likely require private landowners to submit plans for protecting the bird to state regulators, despite assurances the change will only impact state forests, said Rick Barnes, OSWA’s president.
“We all know that’s not the way things work,” he said.
Supporters of the uplisting countered that delayed action has doomed other species due to claims of inconclusive science.
“That is just an argument when you don’t have another argument,” said Jennifer Wolfsong, who testified in favor of uplisting.
Proponents of endangered status for murrelets also found fault with existing protections for the species on state property.
Currently, clearcutting is prohibited in portions of state forests where the Oregon Department of Forestry identifies murrelet nests during regular surveys.
Forest management is also restricted in surrounding buffers.
Environmental groups — such as those that petitioned for the uplisting — claim the surveys aren’t reliable enough to find many occupied sites.
For example, the birds may be absent from nesting sites due to poor ocean forage conditions in certain years, effectively making forest stand eligible for logging, environmentalists said.
“It’s clear the status quo has failed this species,” said Quinn Read, Northwest director of the Defenders of Wildlife. “It is time to take that next step.”