Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its proposal to significantly reduce the amount of protected habitat for marbled murrelets in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. The new proposal would protect only 221,692 acres, an almost 95% reduction from the current 3.9 million acres originally protected for this shy, robin-sized seabird. If finalized, the drastic reduction in critical habitat would harm the murrelet's chance of recovery in the Pacific Northwest.
"Normally, some reductions in habitat protections might be expected when an threatened animal is recovering," said Susan Ash of Audubon Society of Portland, "Inexplicably, the Bush administration is proposing to remove most protections at a time when scientists predict the murrelet is nearing extinction in the Pacific Northwest."
Marbled murrelets are seabirds that use old-growth forests for nesting and rearing their young. First protected in 1992 due to ongoing logging in old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, marbled murrelets are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In 1997, FWS estimated that the marbled murrelet population in the Pacific Northwest was declining 4-7 percent a year. More recent demographic models indicate that populations in Washington, Oregon, and California will be extinct within the next 50 years.
"In California, this critical habitat proposal will be the nail in the murrelet's coffin," said Scott Greacen of EPIC. "We already have occupied murrelet forests being logged, and this proposal can only make a bad situation worse."
The revised critical habitat proposal comes as a result of a sweetheart "sue and settle" lawsuit brought by the timber industry in 2002. The timber industry has long fought critical habitat protections, despite the importance of habitat for species' recovery.
"Scientific studies have shown that critical habitat is vital for recovery," said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with The Center for Biological Diversity. "Species with critical habitat are nearly twice as likely to be improving than species without. FWS should be working to restore our murrelets, not drive them extinct."
In the proposal, FWS admits that over 3.5 million acres of land in the three states serve as critical habitat for this threatened bird, but the Service used political exclusions to reduce the amount of critical habitat actually protected by millions of acres. For example, federal public land managed under the Northwest Forest Plan is excluded, even though the Bush administration has been trying to amend and weaken forest protections under that Plan. FWS's newly-discovered position clashes with its 1996 findings that designation of murrelet critical habitat in areas covered by the Northwest Forest Plan supported and complimented the Plan.
"It is hypocritical, not to say illegal, for FWS to defer to supposed protections in a forest plan that is under attack," said Doug Heiken of ONRC.
"Instead of moving forward with environmentally responsible forest management, the Bush administration wants to return to cutting old-growth forests," said Susan Ash of Audubon Society of Portland. "Yet again, the administration is in cahoots with special interests to achieve their logging goals."
The proposal also excludes critical habitat in areas covered by both draft and final habitat conservation plans, and fails to designate any areas where murrelets once lived but are currently unoccupied. Ocean habitat is also excluded. The political exclusions mean that most of the land designated in the proposal is city, county, state, and private land, even though federal public lands – national forests, parks, and land managed by BLM – contain most of the important murrelet habitat.
For more information on marbled murrelet
Public comments on the proposal are due November 13, 2006.