Salvage logging rider barrels into a shy seabird's world

  • Marbled murrelet in winter plumage

    Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 3.9 million acres of land along the Oregon and Washington coast as "critical habitat" for the marbled murrelet in late April, nothing changed for the Citizens Murrelet Survey Project. The members of the Corvallis, Ore.-based group continue their routine of getting up at 4:30 a.m. and spending the rest of the day looking up at giant trees, hoping to spot the robin-sized seabird.

"That designation doesn't protect the bird at all," says the group's director Lisa Brown, who has helped train nearly 100 volunteers.

Why not? Under the salvage logging rider signed by President Clinton last July, thousands of acres of murrelet habitat, much of it in Oregon's Siuslaw National Forest, may be cut before September. The designation of critical habitat, required by the Endangered Species Act, can't prevent salvage logging because the rider supersedes environmental laws.

At first, it seemed the rider would not significantly affect the species, because it contains a provision that disallows cutting in murrelet habitat. But a Jan. 19 ruling by Federal District Judge Michael Hogan changed the definition of what constitutes habitat. The judge agreed with the timber industry that guidelines to verify the presence of murrelets - developed by a group of mostly federal scientists known as the Pacific Seabird Group Protocol - were too broad. Only one characteristic, he said, applied: A bird must be sighted within the forest canopy of a sale site to prove the trees are used for nesting.

As a result, protection for some 100 timber sale units previously identified as murrelet habitat was thrown out the door. "Hogan made it virtually impossible to document an area inhabited by the murrelet," says Adam Berger of Seattle's Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which is challenging Hogan's ruling in appeals court.

Kim Nelson, who helped develop the seabird protocol, says murrelets are one of the most elusive birds in North America. She recalls it once took a team of scientists two weeks to verify the presence of murrelets at a nest site; they at last resorted to a remote video camera for evidence.

Shannon Wilson spent three years documenting murrelet populations in Oregon and Washington forests. "All of that work (for the Bureau of Land Management) is nullified," says Wilson, who now trains volunteers with the Citizens Murrelet Survey Project.

Volunteers continue to hike to as many of the sites as possible in hopes of spotting murrelets before the loggers arrive. Brown says the work is extremely difficult because the birds nest hundreds of feet in the air. Usually the only time to spot one is early in the morning, when the murrelet returns to its nest after feeding in the ocean.

But she hopes the hard work will pay off; so far volunteers have spotted "sub-canopy behavior" in three proposed sale areas. The group has submitted its findings to the Forest Service and is waiting to hear if the agency will cancel the sales. "We've been an extra set of eyes and ears," she says.

For more information on the Citizens Murrelet Survey Project, call 541/758-0255.

* Bill Taylor, HCN intern

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