Marbled murrelet decision may muddle species’ status

Marbled murrelet decision may muddle species’ status

By John Driscoll
The Eureka Times-Standard

September 02, 2004

Marbled murrelets in the Pacific Northwest states aren’t distinct from those in Alaska and Canada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined, a decision that will open up a review of the whole species.

The service was sharply criticized by environmental groups for going against the conclusion of scientists examining the question. Scientists in April found that conservation efforts are significantly different in California, Oregon and Washington from Canada and Alaska, and that loss of the southern population would create a large gap in the murrelet’s range.

“It’s a policy call,” said Fish and Wildlife spokesman David Patte. “It’s difficult.”

The determination does nothing to change the bird’s protected status. But it will trigger a review of the whole species. About 930,000 murrelets live in Canada and Alaska, but only about 21,000 live in California, Oregon and Washington.

In April, Fish and Wildlife found that the southern population could be wiped out within the next several decades. Old-growth forest logging, predation and oil spills are key threats to the small tree-nesting sea bird’s survival, the report found.

The report was commissioned after three Oregon sawmills sued the government to review the bird’s status. A Seattle firm pulled together 16 scientists to write the report.

Fish and Wildlife said there are no marked differences between the birds at the U.S.-Canadian border, and that there are no significant differences in how the species are managed in the two countries.

That assertion is directly opposite the one scientists made in April. Canada’s version of the Endangered Species Act went into place this summer, and they said they couldn’t know what effect that and other management efforts would have on the species.

But Patte said the differences in management — and even the distinction that many northern birds nest on the ground while southern birds nest in trees — weren’t significant enough to meet the criteria for a distinct population laid out in 1996.

The service is blatantly ignoring science, said Cynthia Elkins of the Environmental Protection Information Center. She said the Bush administration is apparently trying to set the stage for removal of the bird from the endangered species list.

“This is a disturbing indication, to say the least,” Elkins said.

Patte said the service could decide to continue to protect the bird’s habitat in the region since it represents a significant portion — about 18 percent — of the historic range of the species. Also, whether the species as a whole is threatened is a question that must be answered before changing the protected status of the species, he said.

The agency is also conducting a review of the status of the northern spotted owl. That report is due this fall.