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In a surprising reversal of position, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 Thursday not to reclassify the threatened marbled murrelet as an endangered species.
The vote came after hours of testimony from ODFW staff and environmental and timber industry advocates during day one of the commission’s two-day meeting in Baker City, Ore.
Commissioners had voted in February to “uplist” as endangered the marbled murrelet, a small seabird that nests in old growth forests along the Oregon Coast. The species was first listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992. ODFW listed the marbled murrelet as a threatened species in 1995.
In June 2016, a coalition of environmental groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands, Oregon Wild, Coast Range Forest Watch, Sierra Club and Audubon Society of Portland — petitioned ODFW to reclassify the birds as endangered. The species is already listed as endangered in Washington and California.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission met Feb. 8-9 in Portland, and voted 4-2 to accept the petitioners’ recommendation, with commissioners Bruce Buckmaster and Jim Bittle opposed.
Four months later, the commission effectively overturned its previous decision, voting 4-2 not to list the marbled murrelet as endangered. Commissioners Greg Wolley and Holly Akenson remained in favor of uplisting.
“I didn’t feel good about what we did in February,” Bittle said. “I didn’t like the information that we got.”
Ultimately, the reversal came down to a shift in balance on the commission.
When commissioners voted in February, Chairman Michael Finely was excused from the meeting, creating an even number of votes. Commissioner Bob Webber, who initially opposed uplisting the marbled murrelet, relented and changed his vote to avoid a deadlock. At the time, Webber said his least favorite option would be to do nothing.
This time around, Finley was present, but former commissioner Laura Anderson — who voted in favor of uplisting — was gone after vacating her seat in March. Finley and Webber joined Buckmaster and Bittle in declining to uplist the species.
“I can’t come to the conclusion that the population is at serious risk,” Bittle said.
Timber workers also pleaded with the commission to reconsider the uplisting, which would have led to new logging restrictions to protect old growth trees and habitat for marbled murrelets on state-owned land.
Seth Barnes, director of forest policy for the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, said Oregon State University is conducting a 10-year study of marbled murrelets that will better inform a decision down the road.
“We need to stay as close as we can to the empirical data,” Barnes said. “A vote to not uplist the marbled murrelet is not a vote for the timber industry. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
Jim James, executive director of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, said that while new guidelines to protect the marbled murrelet would apply only to state lands, they would create an incentive for private landowners to liquidate any habitat associated with the birds.
State Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, also testified that imposing more logging restrictions would continue to harm rural communities that depend on the timber economy.
“Rural Oregon is struggling,” said Smith, who added he has the nation’s eighth-most impoverished school district within his legislative boundary in southwest Oregon.
Environmental groups that petitioned to uplist the marbled murrelet blasted the commission’s about-face Thursday.
Nick Cady, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands, said there is “no question this bird is doing very poorly.” He said the population declined by 50 percent near the central Oregon coast around the time it was initially listed as threatened, and has yet to recover.
“(The commission) flipped in the face of an incredible amount of scientific testimony,” Cady said.
According to ODFW’s own status review, highly suitable nesting habitat for marbled murrelets declined by an estimated 78,600 acres, or nearly 10 percent, between 1993 and 2012.
“I think the bird is still showing the effects of the rampant clear-cutting that was going on,” Cady said.
The Northwest Forest Plan Monitoring Report shows populations of marbled murrelets stabilized between 2000 and 2015, according to ODFW. However, demographic models predict an 80 percent chance of extinction over the next century.
The commission may still adopt survival guidelines for marbled murrelets on state lands, though the rules would be advisory, not required. Commissioners delayed consideration of the guidelines until their Aug. 3 meeting in Salem.