Marbled murrelets nest in state-owned forestland in Clatsop County, but it isn’t clear yet how an uplisting from threatened to endangered in Oregon could affect logging operations.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 on Friday to upgrade the small coastal bird’s protected status. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will have until June to complete survival guidelines.
The guidelines are expected to further restrict logging, though Dan Goody, district forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Astoria District, said foresters on state lands already follow strategies that are more conservative than required under the state’s Forest Practices Act.
“What we’re doing may meet what they come up with,” he said.
Contractors routinely survey the Astoria District’s forestland for murrelets and spotted owls. Goody pointed out some places were designated as marbled murrelet habitat many years ago. Several spots do not appear to have been used by the birds in five or six years.
“There’s no policy whether to keep or get rid of those, so now we’re treating them all as occupied even though they might not be,” he said.
There isn’t any known marbled murrelet habitat within the Lewis & Clark Timberlands managed by GreenWood Resources, but these lands are adjacent to the state land that does contain nesting sites.
In the days before the Fish and Wildlife commission’s decision, Mark Morgans, area manager of the Lewis & Clark Timberlands, said an uplisting would be premature at best considering the research Oregon State University is conducting on the bird.
“I believe that a change in the status of the marbled murrelet from threatened to endangered is not warranted because the science on the marbled murrelet is unclear,” he said.
He pointed to data that suggests murrelet populations in Oregon may be stable and improving and forest habitat may not be the limiting factor.
Marbled murrelets spend their time on coastal waters and in bays but nest inland. They appear to prefer trees in old-growth and mature forests, habitat that has become scarce. The birds are federally listed as threatened. In recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has predicted recovery of the species could take decades given the marbled murrelet’s naturally low reproductive rate and continued loss of nesting habitat.
Near Arch Cape, a proposed RV park across the highway from Arcadia Beach has faced criticism from environmental groups who fear the development threatens marbled murrelet habitat.
For Nadia Gardner, an environmental scientist and North Coast resident, it is crucial to look at both of the environments where the murrelets spend their time — the forest and the ocean.
“We have the current occupied nesting habitat and old growth — which is very little at this point — on public lands and not enough to sustain the population in the long term,” she said. “So the next step has to be protecting potential, future habitat so we can actually build on that habitat and in the long term there will be more, not less.”
She thinks it’s important to keep climate change in mind, pointing to shifts in the ocean that could result in a collapse in the food chain.
“That alone could kill them off,” she said. “The only thing we can do as a state is on the land.”
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 fish and wildlife commissioner from Astoria 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,” Buckmaster said.
Commissioners originally considered ordering the agency to develop 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, 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 state and California consider the species endangered.
Mateusz Perkowski of the Capital Bureau reported from Portland.