In a complete reversal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that it would not finalize a proposal to revise protected habitat for marbled murrelets in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. While the proposal would have slashed protected critical habitat by almost 95 percent, FWS agreed with conservation groups that it would not be appropriate to revise critical habitat for this shy, robin-sized seabird while the Bureau of Land Management was simultaneously changing its land management plans throughout Oregon. Today’s decision means that approximately 3.9 million acres of federal old-growth forest remain protected as murrelet habitat.
“This reversal, coupled with a recent court decision throwing out a timber industry attempt to delist the murrelet, should end the timber industry’s profit-driven and illegal attack on the coastal forests that murrelets need to survive,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice.
Marbled murrelets are seabirds that use old-growth forests for nesting and rearing their young. In 1992, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the marbled murrelet population in Washington, Oregon, and California as a threatened species due to logging of its old growth habitat. Despite undisputed scientific evidence that murrelets are disappearing from the Pacific coast, the timber industry has set its sights on the small seabird in order to increase logging of trees over 100 years old.
Even with the current protections in place, government scientists estimate that the marbled murrelet population in Washington, Oregon, and California continues to decline at a rate of 4 to 7 percent per year. A recent U.S. Geological Survey report estimated that the murrelet population in British Columbia and Alaska is also at risk, declining by 70 percent over the last 25 years.
The timber industry has long fought critical habitat protections, despite the importance of habitat for species’ recovery. The entire process of revising murrelet critical habitat came as a result of a “sue and settle” lawsuit brought by the timber industry in 2002. Instead of defending against the lawsuit, the Bush administration entered into a sweetheart deal to review the murrelet’s protected status and habitat. In today’s announcement, FWS states that its decision not to revise critical habitat “complete[s] the Service’s obligations under the settlement agreement.”
Recently, conservation groups have questioned marbled murrelet decisions due to the involvement of Julie MacDonald, a now-retired official in the Bush Interior Department, who interfered with scientific findings in a murrelet biological status report issued in 2004.
“Today’s decision also shows FWS trying to climb out of the hole left by Julie MacDonald and the Bush administration’s disregard of science and the law,” Boyles said. “The scientists won out over the politicos on this one.”