Officials are expected to propose alternatives soon for saving the marbled murrelet, a sign of progress in the fight to help the “brown potato with a beak.”
In 1992, a small, speedy seabird called the marbled murrelet was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Its home — the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest — had dwindled, leaving it few places to nest.
Twenty-three years later, the population of the bird has continued to decline. By some counts, its numbers are 50 percent lower than they were a decade ago.
Now its advocates have joined together in a new campaign to save the bird, which can fly at up to 100 mph, swims underwater and has a roundish body. Maria Mudd-Ruth, whose 2005 book about the species was reissued in 2013, described it as a “brown potato with a beak.”
Marbled-murrelet fast facts
• Diving seabird that nests in old-growth forests
• Webbed feet combined with slender pointed wings help birds ‘fly’ underwater to catch fish and crustaceans.
• Needs tree branches at least 6 inches in diameter on which to nest
• Because it is a rapid but imprecise flier, it needs large spaces between branches so it can land. This bird also drops straight off a branch to gain speed for takeoff.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Murrelet Survival Project, which started last August, is pressuring the state and federal governments to come up with a long-term conservation plan, aimed at increasing the murrelet’s nesting habitat.
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The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are expected to announce several alternatives as early as September, and they’ve scheduled a special meeting next month to discuss the options.
Environmentalists are hopeful that a plan to help the species will be in place by sometime next year.
Creating the right plan may be especially difficult, however, because for its survival the bird depends on avoiding detection.
“The murrelet is a headache, for anyone who either loves it or hates it,” Mudd-Ruth said. “It is a very challenging species to work with.”
The marbled murrelet has been part of state conservation efforts since the early 1990s.
That was back when environmentalists’ biggest concern was the northern spotted owl, a species also classified as threatened. In 1994, the Clinton administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan, aimed at balancing protection of the owl with the economic value of logging.
Protection of the owl’s habitat also helped the murrelet because it limited timber logging in federal old-growth forests. Then in 1997, Endangered Species Act protections were extended to state-owned lands, too. Logging was prohibited in known nesting sites of the murrelet and in a 100-meter buffer around them.
But scientists still didn’t know much about the murrelet until 2008, when the DNR released a report on the bird’s nesting patterns in Southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula. The report listed reasons for the seabird’s decline and some suggestions to help with its recovery.
But DNR has yet to act on those recommendations.
“The whole time, it’s been a very, very slow process,” said Kevin Schmelzlen, the campaign coordinator for the Murrelet Survival Project. Without pressure, he said, he doubts the DNR would take murrelet conservation seriously.
But Kyle Blum, the department’s representative for marbled-murrelet updates, said the extra time was necessary.
“I would say that one of the reasons that it’s taken as long as it has … is that we’re so committed to create these decisions based on science,” Blum said.
Meanwhile, the DNR has allowed logging in a section of the Olympic Experimental State Forest in northwest Washington, near a known marbled murrelet management area. The Washington Forest Law Center filed a lawsuit to stop that project, but lost.
That’s what led environmental groups to band together to form the Murrelet Survival Project.
“At that point,” Schmelzlen said, “we definitely lost some faith in DNR to act in good faith, and realized we need to proactively press this.”
Pressure on DNR
Schmelzlen leads the Murrelet Survival Project, which has members from the Seattle Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Washington Forest Law Center. Its main goal is to motivate DNR to choose a long-term conservation strategy based on findings from the 2008 report — and to do so swiftly.
So far, the effort has succeeded in getting conversations about the murrelet going between timber-dependent counties and conservation communities, said Mudd-Ruth, the murrelet book author, who works with Schmelzlen.
The bird also has been discussed at every Board of Natural Resources meeting in 2015, and the DNR and Fish and Wildlife Service have hired a University of Wisconsin researcher to look at each proposed alternative and its impact on the state murrelet population.
Along with pressuring state and federal agencies, the Murrelet Survival Project has worked to generate public awareness about the species.
The Washington Environmental Council created a Change.org petition, which now has almost 5,500 signatures, asking the state lands commissioner to prohibit logging in marbled-murrelet management areas and to create a larger buffer of 150 meters around known nesting sites.
After the board releases its ideas for long-term conservation in August, the public will have a chance to comment on them. Schmelzlen believes the plan will be in place by the end of 2016.
The goal is to produce something that can last 50 years, enough time for younger trees to grow, creating much more murrelet habitat.
One issue is how the conservation plan might be affected by DNR’s constitutional mandate to make money from logging for state school construction. Environmentalists such as Schmelzlen and Mudd-Ruth hope that one day DNR won’t be expected to raise revenue that way.
“DNR is caught between a rock and a hard place right now,” Mudd-Ruth said. “They have an agenda that’s not sustainable.”
But the advocates believe the murrelet can — and should — be saved. It’s unethical, Schmelzlen said, to consciously choose to let it go extinct.
“There’s a lot of species out there where there’s no good option,” he said. “But here we have a way.”