The misperceptions of the marbled murrelet


While the spotted owl continues to grab headlines, another Pacific Northwest bird is having a growing impact on the timber industry and rural communities. The marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in coastal forests, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993. Like the spotted owl, environmental groups have used the murrelet as a convenient hammer to file innumerable lawsuits, seeking to stop responsible forest management.

As the Oregonian showed last week, the impact of these lawsuits by environmental groups isn’t limited just to rural communities – the suits are wreaking havoc on the Oregon state budget and hurting school funding around the state.

A lawsuit by three environmental groups in May 2012 “largely tied up logging in the (Elliott State Forest), which state officials had originally estimated would net $25.2 million for the state’s Common School Fund over the next two years. Now, officials say the sale of the three parcels, if completed, would fetch enough to manage the forest in the current biennium without raising any money for the school fund,” the paper reported.

Interest earned from the (Common School Fund) goes to the state’s K-12 school districts through the Oregon Department of Education. Last year, the fund paid about $48 million to Oregon schools. The $4.1 million that Portland Public Schools received from the fund last year paid for the equivalent of 48 teachers, according to a state fact sheet.

State officials originally planned to harvest 40 million board feet in Elliott State Forest in the next two years, Paul said. The lawsuit forced officials to revise their projections to 15 million board feet, estimated to fetch $8 million this biennium to cover forest management costs.

The Department of Forestry already laid off seven full-time employees in the Coos Bay office who work on timber sales as part of budget cuts, Paul said.

Environmental groups have spread that notion that a lack of coastal trees is a major – if not the biggest – contributor to the murrelets’ decline. The groups have been so successful that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently fought with the U.S. Forest Service over five old-growth trees the forest service cut down on the southwest Oregon coast because they were in danger of falling down on to campers below.

Problem is, the environmental groups are wrong. As new research shows, loss of habitat pales in comparison to other factors in the murrelets’ decline. Seattle-based science writer Eric Scigliano, writing recently in Crosscut, describes how overfishing of the murrelets’ traditional foods – sardines and anchovies – has forced the birds to eat much smaller krill in an effort to survive.

The popular narrative about murrelets declining largely because of a lack of habitat was incorrect – the seabird is declining because of a complex series of factors.

In 2004, researchers reported that murrelets in Central California had plenty of good nesting branches — but they spent too much time trying to find food. For the most part, this meant they failed to breed successfully. Nest predation and lack of fish were the presumed culprits, but were hard to pin down in so elusive a species.

Nevertheless, policy-making and popular media continued to fixate on the trees as the determining survival factor. The Wikipedia article on the murrelet gives merely a passing nod to “climate-driven changes in ocean conditions” as an “additional factor” in its decline. As recently as 2005, an entire book on the marbled murrelet, Maria Mudd Ruth’s “Rare Bird,” neglected that factor and the whole question of the murrelets’ food supply almost entirely.

As Scigliano writes, the murrelets are affected by ocean conditions as much as anything. “As in climate change, it’s not just what happens on land that affects the fate of life there.”