PORTLAND — Conservation groups sued the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday for failing to strengthen protections for the marbled murrelet, tiny seabirds that venture inland to raise their young and depend on old-growth forests for nesting.
The groups petitioned the commission in 2016 to reclassify the bird’s status from threatened to endangered under the state Endangered Species Act. A listing as endangered would require the state to develop a management plan and survival guidelines for the birds that are about 9 inches long and weigh 7 to 8 ounces.
The commission denied the petition in June by a 4-2 vote, after hearing testimony from officials in timber-rich coastal counties who worried about the economic impact of restricting logging to save the birds. Commissioners opposed to reclassification said researchers from Oregon State University are in the early stages of a 10-year study about the seabird, and they wanted to wait for results.
The defeat was tough for conservationists because the commission in February had accepted a recommendation to grant the petition.
The marbled murrelet was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992 and the Oregon Endangered Species Act in 1995. The species is state-endangered in Washington and California.
In 2015, there were believed to be about 11,000 marbled murrelets in Oregon, but survey numbers are uncertain because the birds have only been counted at sea and are extremely elusive in the forest. Experts believe the population has declined by more than 50 percent from historic highs.
Though the population has been stable since 2000, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife strategy species coordinator Christina Donehower told the board in February that a model shows the bird has about an 80 percent chance of going extinct in Oregon by the 22nd century.
Among its claims, the lawsuit asserts the commission failed to base its decision on verifiable science and didn’t adequately explain its decision to reverse course.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The commission will meet Friday to consider survival guidelines that encourage — but not require — certain actions from timber companies to protect the seabird on state-owned or leased lands. Such guidelines could include additional survey work ahead of logging to determine where the birds are nesting and restrictions on when during the year timber companies would cut.
But since those moves would be nonbinding, “they wouldn’t have any teeth,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the five groups that filed the lawsuit.