In the face of timber development, one more chance to save a remarkable seabird

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The seabird at the center of the state's 21st century timber wars manages an astonishing feat during breeding season. The marbled murrelet, its plumage a mix of brown, bisters and umbers, dines in deep coastal waters. It then flies inland, sometimes as much as 50 miles, to feed its young in a tall conifer. When it lands in the nest, says ornithologist Daniel Froelich, it has to “stick” its landing “like a gymnast, aiming for perfection with no wobble or bounce.”

To do otherwise would be to tumble off the branch, possibly taking its eggs or young with it.

Like most seabirds, the murrelet doesn't have any of the features normally associated with high-nesting, perching birds. It doesn't have claws to help it hold on, wing muscles to flap hard for braking, or a beak able to hold onto vegetation like a parrot. Yet to breed successfully, the murrelet must repeat this maneuver daily for two months, “often under cover of darkness in Pacific forest slopes shrouded in turbid sea-fog,” says Froelich.

Add this evolutionary disadvantage to the loss of habitat from logging in old-growth forests, and the murrelet's survival is on a collision course. At issue is how to balance the need to save a struggling species with the state of Washington's mandate to generate revenue from timber harvests. Advocates for the bird say both needs could be met if the Department of Natural Resources adopts a long-term conservation strategy for protection and restoration of habitat on state lands. The DNR has been operating under an interim strategy since 1997. Despite this, and its listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1992, the murrelet has continued to decline. Some reports say the bird’s numbers have dropped as much as 48 percent since 2001.

This week, after years of advocacy, lawsuits and scientific study, the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold public hearings at a special murrelet board meeting on October 15. Four possible habitat conservation plans will be presented by an out-of-state murrelet expert. The plan adopted later in the year will form the basis for a new long-term conservation strategy. Kevin Schmeltzen with the Murrelet Survival Project says “without an official conservation strategy in place, DNR will continue to be under pressure to provide that timber revenue and we'll likely continue to see murrelet habitat chipped away.”

Logging was curtailed by the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, which aimed to balance protection of the Northern spotted owl with the economic value of logging. Protection of owl habitat helped the murrelet because it limited logging in federal old-growth forests. Then in 1997, Endangered Species Act protections were extended to state-owned lands. Logging was prohibited in known murrelet nesting sites and in a 100-meter buffer around them.

The problem was very few nesting sites were known. The murrelets unique evolutionary traits make them exceedingly hard to track. Their habit of nesting in trees was not documented until a tree-climber found a chick in 1974, making it one of the last North American bird species to have its nest described. In 2004, the DNR commissioned a report to track the bird's nesting patterns on the Olympic Peninsula and Southwest Washington. Four years later recommendations for the bird's recovery were released in a science report. The recommendations were ignored, say advocates, who hope that the habitat plans presented this week will signal a turning point in habitat restoration and protection.

Neither the DNR or the Fish and Wildlife Service would comment on the plans that will be presented until after the October 15 board meeting. The scientist hired to present the plans, Zach Peery with the University of Wisconsin, did not reply to a request for comment.

Shawn Cantrell, a former director of Seattle Audubon who now works for Defenders of Wildlife, says much of the best murrelet habitat is on federal lands. But for a long-term conservation strategy to succeed, says Cantrell, surrounding state lands must provide continuous habitat. “You don't want all these small fragments. Because one of the big threats to murrelets is predation.” Logging and timber harvests open forest canopies to predators like ravens and jays. “Predators don't go deep into the old growth forest”, he says. “They enter on what's called the edge habitat where they often find murrelet nests.”

Crosscut archive image.Cantrell says state-managed lands along the coast from the Olympic Peninsula to southwest Washington contain “hot spots,” where the birds could gain new footholds. These areas, found in the San Juan Islands, Olympic State Experimental Forest, and Strait of Juan de Fuca, offer “a convergence of proximity to marine waters and timber”, says Cantrell. They have fat tree limbs for murrelets to nest, “limbs with enough moss or lichen to pound down and build a depression to create a little cup where they can lay their eggs,” he says.

The American Resource Council, whose members get a portion of their timber from DNR managed lands, is also waiting to hear the outcome of this week's special murrelet board meeting. The council's Ann Forest Burns hopes the plan that's adopted will focus on Marbled Murrelet Management Areas or trimas that are “implementable.” In the past “trimas” have been a source of friction between DNR and advocates for the birds over how much state land was suitable for nesting, or already contained nests.

“What DNR has been doing in fits and starts over the years with Fish and Wildlife,” says Burns, “ is coming up with a set of prescriptions that can be implemented and everyone can agree to. That's what they're rolling out this week, the next iteration of ideas to the board.”

The situation is critical for the murrelet. At current rates of decline there may be no murrelets in 30 years, say advocates, who include Audubon chapters, conservation groups, and the Washington Forest Law Center. Murrelets in southwest Washington could be extinct within 15 years, according to the Willapa Hills Audubon Society. Charlotte Persons, Conservation Chair, says if the southwest Washington population disappears, the northern population of birds in Washington, Canada and Alaska will be genetically isolated from the southern populations in Oregon and California. “The genetic bottleneck could quickly lead to species extinction,” says Persons.

The Washington Environmental Council created a petition addressed to State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark. The petition, which has over 5,500 signatures, calls on Goldmark to provide a buffer around murrelet habitat and stop logging in designated marbled murrelet management areas until the conservation plan is finalized.

Whether the peculiar seabird with webbed feet can hang on until then is unsure. “They traded the risks of colonial nesting [on cliffs] for the risks of colonizing an improbable seabird habitat,” says Dan Froelich, the ornithologist. “This served them well for millenia. But in today's world with rapid changes to their forests and the predators within, as well as to the oceans where they seek their food, their particular evolutionary approach makes for an uncertain future.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.