Ending the murrelet malaise

After decades of declines, Washington state finally has a plan to preserve the bird’s habitat.

 

On an August morning in 1974, a California tree surgeon named Hoyt Foster was 170 feet up a Douglas-fir, trimming storm-damaged branches, when he found himself face-to-beak with a fuzzy, robin-sized chick. The bird possessed webbed feet — a surprising feature, given that the tree stood five miles inland from the Pacific. Foster notified biologists, who realized, to their wonder, that he had found a marbled murrelet, a cousin of ocean-going puffins and auklets. By then, scientists knew where every North American bird nested — except for the marbled murrelet. Nobody had thought to seek a seabird in an old-growth forest.

The murrelet, once known to loggers as the fog lark, does not precisely nest. Instead, it deposits a single green egg — slightly pointed, to reduce rolling — on a moss-cushioned branch within 50 miles of the coast. It needs an exceptionally wide branch to provide a proper platform; only the limbs of huge old trees suffice. “They have such a unique, cryptic ecology,” says Kim Nelson, research wildlife biologist at Oregon State University. “That fascinates me. It also frustrates me.”

The Pacific Northwest, of course, is no stranger to old-growth-dependent birds. Back in the early 1990s, battle raged over the northern spotted owl, an endangered species jeopardized by logging. In 1994, then President Bill Clinton brokered an uneasy truce: the Northwest Forest Plan, which coordinated management across three states, eight agencies and 24 million acres. Though the plan was primarily designed for the owl, its intended beneficiaries included the murrelet, listed as threatened in 1992.

By some measures, the plan has worked: Federal lands in California, Oregon and Washington have retained 98 percent of their suitable habitat. Yet it hasn’t reversed the murrelet’s slide — particularly in Washington, where the population has plummeted 50 percent, to fewer than 5,000, since 2001. On state and private land, timber harvest has eliminated 30 percent, or around 215,000 acres, of prime habitat in the last two decades. Oregon and California are bleeding non-federal habitat as well.

After years of delay, the Washington Department of Natural Resources is on the verge of enacting a long-term conservation approach aimed at boosting the state’s murrelets. The strategy, intended to protect existing habitat and regenerate new forest cover over the next 50 years, ranks among the most consequential decisions for Northwest old growth since the Forest Plan. A quarter-century after the owl wars, the fate of hundreds of thousands of timber acres once again rests on an obscure bird.  

An adult marbled murrelet takes flight. Although murrelets are seabirds, they nest two to 50 miles inland in old-growth trees.
Mike Danzenbaker

 

At 4:30 on a July morning, as pre-dawn light filtered through cedars, I stood in a parking lot in Olympic National Park, neck cricked upward, eyes trained on a patch of pale sky. As day broke, one murrelet, then three, then five, flapped in from the sea, their wings beating frantically to hold their lumpy bodies aloft. Their call floated down to me, a mournful, maritime Kree!

My companion was Kevin Schmelzlen, director of the Murrelet Survival Project, an initiative founded in 2014 by conservation groups, including Audubon and the Sierra Club. Schmelzlen, an avowed tree-hugger with a triathlete’s build and a lumberjack’s beard, cut his teeth in the acrimonious world of wolf conservation. He was glad to have escaped that drama. But rallying the public around a near-invisible seabird that biologists describe as a “potato with wings” posed its own challenges. “Not many people choose the murrelet as their spirit animal,” Schmelzlen sighed as another airborne spud winged overhead.

The murrelets had returned to swap shifts with their egg-sitting mates, who flew off to forage. That double life — nest in the trees, feed in the seas — makes it harder to pinpoint why the species is declining. The bird undoubtedly faces marine threats: Gillnets ensnare and drown it, and overfishing robs it of high-calorie food like anchovies and sardines.

Yet research suggests that trouble in the woods, not the water, has caused the most harm. Not only does logging deprive murrelets of nesting sites, it also fragments their habitat, allowing opportunistic ravens and jays to penetrate forests and devour eggs. Researchers find the densest populations near blocks of unbroken old growth. While murrelets dwelling near Olympic National Park have fared relatively well, they’ve suffered in areas lacking federal land, like southwest Washington. Such gaps, fear scientists, could divide a population that has traditionally stretched from Northern California to Southeast Alaska. “That could have deleterious effects over the long run if it creates genetic isolation,” warns Martin Raphael, research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Though Washington has long recognized its murrelet problem, it’s only now addressing it. Back in 1997, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which manages state-owned timber lands, completed an interim Habitat Conservation Plan that protected known nesting sites. At the time, basic mysteries of murrelet biology remained unsolved. When better science emerged, the department vowed, a more enduring plan would take hold.

In 2004, it commissioned Raphael, Nelson and other scientists to design a long-term conservation strategy. Their report, completed in 2008, recommended that the department protect not only known nests, but also a handful of large, contiguous forest patches in southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula. Soon thereafter, however, the global recession that struck the timber industry crippled the agency, and it failed to implement the scientists’ ideas. “We were saying, ‘Hey, we have great recommendations here, let’s keep moving,’ ” says Kara Whittaker, senior scientist at the nonprofit Washington Forest Law Center. “But the recommendations just sat there.”

As the years dragged on, logging continued within the proposed murrelet reserves. Organizations like Whittaker’s fought back, with mixed results: A 2013 lawsuit saved 12,000 acres in southwest Washington, but in 2014, the state proceeded with two timber sales on the Olympic Peninsula near known nesting sites.

The Department of Natural Resources, which manages 3 million acres as state trust land — forests in which timber sales fund public schools, universities, prisons and other institutions — also faced accusations of flawed science. When scientists at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife surveyed the northern Olympic Peninsula in the early 2000s, they found their sister agency’s models had failed to predict actual murrelet habitat. To Schmelzlen, it was a telling shortcoming. “There’s a conflict of interest when you have an agency that exists to raise revenue through timber sales and is also in charge of finding nesting sites,” he says.

 

Robert Peck of Oregon State University studies marbled murrelet nests in Valley of the Giants, Oregon, a forest preserve with many large Douglas-firs and western hemlocks, two common murrelet nesting trees.
Gary Braasch/Getty Images

In October, at long last, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published five draft alternatives (they’ve since added a sixth) for a long-term approach to murrelet conservation. After environmental review and public comments, a plan could be in place by mid-2017.

The least conservation-minded alternative, which maintains the status quo, would preserve fewer than 600,000 acres of long-term forest cover. Meanwhile, the most robust option, Alternative E, would protect more than 730,000 acres of forest, including the special reserves identified by the 2008 science team. The agency worked with new models created by independent scientists, says Kyle Blum, deputy supervisor for upland resources. “We built a really solid, robust analytical framework using feedback from both the conservation and timber communities.”

Still, the prospect of new regulations raises old ghosts. “The impacts are going to fall on the communities,” predicts Carol Johnson, executive director of the North Olympic Timber Action Committee. In Port Angeles, says Johnson, three sawmills have closed in recent years, taking 200 jobs. Though those shutdowns had more to do with economic conditions than conservation laws, Johnson fears new restrictions could further hamper industry, costing jobs and needed revenue. 

As with the spotted owl, the murrelet battle is a proxy war among interests that care at least as much about forest usage as they do about the bird itself. Yet despite the high stakes, the tussle has remained more civil than the owl wars; no one out here is sporting “Save a Logger, Eat a Murrelet” bumper stickers. Whittaker notes that the Department of Natural Resources has accepted input from conservation groups and willingly shared information. Even Johnson, who complains about greenies who “never want to see another tree cut,” sees evidence of collaboration. “Nobody looks back fondly on the toxic dialogue of the owl wars,” says the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bridget Moran. “We all want sustainable forestry to remain a strong economic engine.”

One promising approach: Washington’s State Forest Replacement Program, which reimburses timber-dependent counties for conserving forests that house endangered species. Earlier this year, Schmelzlen and an eclectic alliance of county commissioners and Natural Resources officials lobbied Washington to better fund the program. So far, though, Washington has granted $1 million only to Skamania County, which hosts spotted owls but not marbled murrelets. (The state is still trying to figure out how to distribute $2 million more.) For now, the owl still rules. 

As the sun rose over Olympic National Park, however, Schmelzlen expressed optimism that the murrelet would eventually garner the support it deserves. “We care about timber communities, but we also care about the bird,” he insisted. After a flurry of activity, the park’s murrelets had settled down for the day, blissfully unaware of the tumult they’d created among humans. “We don’t need to make a species extinct to keep people in business.”

Higher-suitability nesting habitat lost, 1993-2012

Oregon

115,111 acres of

Suitable Habitat Lost

Range Total

351,140 acres of

Suitable Habitat Lost

Wildfire

Washington

214,973 acres of

Suitable Habitat Lost

Insects

California

Timber

Harvest

21,056 acres

of Suitable

Habitat Lost

Natural

Disturbances

Available suitable murrelet nesting habitat, as of 2012

2,226,900 acres

1,343,200 acres

774,700 acres

109,000 acres

Total

WA

OR

CA

SOURCE: Northwest Forest Plan Interagency Regional Monitoring Program, useiconic.com

*graph has been changed from its original version. It was first published showing total capable habitat, which is greater than the amount of suitable nesting habitat. Capable Habitat includes forested lands that could eventually become habitat, Much of which has been recently cutover or is recovering from fire. The graph now shows only suitable habitat that can currently be inhabited by murrelets.