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Marbled Murrelet officially listed as endangered species in Oregon

By Andrew Theen
The Oregonian

The Marbled Murrelet, a threatened seabird that nests in old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest, is officially an endangered species in Oregon.

Marbled Murrelet officially listed as endangered species in Oregon

This undated image provided by Esther Burkett shows a marbled murrelet, the diving seabird found along the coast of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. (AP Photo/Esther Burkett, File)(ESTHER BURKETT)

The Marbled Murrelet, a threatened seabird that nests in old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest, is officially an endangered species in Oregon.

The state's Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Friday to reclassify the seabird as endangered after a marathon daylong meeting in a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel near Portland International Airport.

Commissioners voted 4-2 to support the uplisting proposal in response to a petition from several environmental groups. The decision kick-starts a recovery plan for the seabird, which was first listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992. The commission will meet again in June, when it is expected to hear a survival plan for the bird.

The vote also puts Oregon on the same page as neighboring California and Washington, which both uplisted the seabird from threatened to endangered in recent years. It's unclear what the decision would mean for the timber industry, though large and small interests lobbied against the vote Friday.

The commission, appointed by the governor, deliberated for more than an hour after hearing approximately 90 minutes testimony from both supporters of the effort and detractors. Commissioners spent much of the morning being briefed by wildlife staff, Oregon Department of Forestry officials and Oregon State University researchers who are undertaking an extensive study of the bird's range and nesting habits.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, seemed stunned by the decision which came after commissioners were initially deadlocked at a 3-3.

"This is a really exciting day," Sallinger said moments after the vote, "but it's also a sad day that we've now recognized that this species is on the brink of extinction."

Sara Duncan, director of public affairs for the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, issued a statement saying the group was disappointed.

"Decisions of this magnitude that come at staggering costs to rural Oregon communities should be informed by contemporary science," she said, citing an ongoing study by Oregon State University researchers, "and we're disheartened that doesn't appear to be the case in today's decision."

The vote now puts the state on a fast-track to approve new rules and regulations to protect the seabird. The state's forestry board is working on a separate track to approve rules governing private forested lands, but those rules may still be nearly two years from being finalized.

Murrelets are diving seabirds that nest in older-growth forest along the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and parts of northern and central California. The birds are occasionally described as "The Enigma of the Pacific," and can travel as much as 50 miles inland to nest in coastal forests.

The birds face a number of obstacles, primarily habitat loss from timber activity in coastal forests.

Much of the concern centers around logging activity on state and private land. Clear cuts and young forests on the Coast Range haven't rebounded enough to offer prime habitat for the seabirds. According to state officials, the seabirds lost 853,000 acres of "high suitability" habitat over a 20-year period after the birds were first listed as threatened under the federal law.

Habitat has rebounded as forests regrow, but the result is still a 9 percent net loss of those prime habitats, according to the state.

Wildfires also play a role. The 2017 Chetco Bar fire in Southwest Oregon caused the loss of roughly 20,000 acres of crucial murrelet habitat, according to state officials.

Murrelets also face difficult conditions in the ocean, including warming waters, ocean acidification and oil spills such as the one caused by the 1999 beaching of the New Carissa, which resulted in the deaths of at least 262 seabirds.

There are roughly 11,000 birds counted in Oregon as of the most recent estimate.

The meeting ended in dramatic fashion after commissioners initially were locked at a 3-3 vote on a prior proposal to decline the uplisting request while moving forward with a separate survival plan for the bird.

Chair Michael Finley was not at the meeting, leaving the commissioners with an even number to decide the issue. Fish and wildlife staff said the board needed to either approve or vote down the uplisting proposal because they faced a June deadline to respond to the environmental groups.

Bob Webber, a commissioner from Port Orford, ultimately changed his vote. "I would rather uplist than do nothing," he said, before voting.

Environmental advocates cheered and hugged in the ballroom after the decision.

In June 2016, several environmental groups petitioned the state to change the seabird's status from threatened to endangered. In fall 2016, the wildlife commission agreed to move forward with a biological review. The final review was released last month.

Though it made no recommendation about the bird's fate, the state's report included models that forecast the seabirds faced an 80 percent risk of extinction by 2060 through part of its range in Oregon.

The report also referenced separate surveys that showed the bird's population remained stable from 2002 to 2015.

Christina Donehower, the state's official who worked on the murrelet report, told commissioners she included that fact about a stable population to "provide a holistic look" at the bird's status.

But there were other areas of concern, including uncertainties about the long-living bird's reproductive success rate – they produce only one egg at a time and not necessarily every year -- and whether the relatively stable population surveyed in the ocean includes resident Oregon birds or animals that traveled from California or Washington.

Much of the public testimony cycled between nonprofit groups and advocates and timber interests, including small operators who live and work in the Coast Range.

Seth Barnes, director of forest policy at the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, urged the commissioners to wait because there were thousands of acres of prime seabird habitat ready to come online as the forests regrow.

"I would remind you that these acres," he said of the regrowth, "come at a great social cost for many Oregonians," he said, citing mill closures and a decline in timber production in the wake of the murrelet and spotted owl lawsuits.

Commissioner also heard extensive testimony Friday about an innovative and expansive decade-long study launched last year from Oregon State researchers, backed with state financial support.

Jim Rivers, the lead on the OSU study, said researchers tagged 61 seabirds with tracking beacons in 2017. The researchers found that none of those birds nested in Oregon forests.

Instead, some birds flew south as far as San Francisco Bay while others traveled north to Cape Flattery in Washington.

"This was unexpected," Rivers told the commissioners.

Some of the audience members wanted to wait for further details from the OSU study, as did some of the commissioners.

That work will continue, with researchers tracking the birds by boat, drone and in the forested areas of the coast.

Rivers said one year of data on the birds didn't make a trend. "It's important that we continue to do this work in the future," he said.

 

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Andrew Theen

atheen@oregonian.com

503-294-4026

@andrewtheen

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