Uplisting Murrelets

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

On July 9, 2021, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission will revisit the issue of whether to uplist Marbled Murrelets from threatened to endangered under the state’s Endangered Species Act. As a matter of both science and law, it is long past time for the Commission to take this important step to help reverse the murrelet’s decline toward extinction in Oregon.

The Marbled Murrelet is a small seabird that comes ashore to nest in mature and old-growth forests along the Oregon Coast. Like the Northern Spotted Owl, it was devastated by decades of clear-cut logging. Based on a status report commissioned by Bird Alliance of Oregon in 1988, the Marbled Murrelet was listed as threatened under both the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992 and Oregon’s Endangered Species Act in 1995. Despite those listings, the murrelet has continued to move closer and closer to extinction in Oregon.

A photo of a Marbled Murrelet flying low over the water.
Marbled Murrelet, photo by Robin Corcoran/USFWS

In 2016, Bird Alliance of Oregon, Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity, Oregon Wild, Coast Range Forest Watch, and the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club petitioned the ODFW Commission to reclassify the Marbled Murrelet from threatened to endangered in Oregon. The five years that have elapsed since that petition was submitted have been more tortuous than anyone could have predicted. Reclassification would require that all state agencies whose activities impact murrelets develop management plans for the species to be approved by ODFW.

In 2018, in response to the petition, ODFW staff produced a new status report for the Marbled Murrelet. It cited research showing that the murrelet’s extinction probability is 80% by 2060 along Oregon’s Central and North Coast and 80% by 2100 along Oregon’s South Coast. It also reported that the primary causes of murrelet declines—loss and fragmentation of older forest habitat on which the bird depends for nesting—have “slowed, but not halted … since the 1990s,” with greatest losses occurring on lands managed by the state. The review specifically notes that existing programs and regulation have “failed to prevent continued high rates of habitat loss on nonfederal lands in Oregon.”

In February of 2018, the Commission voted to uplist the Marbled Murrelet from threatened to endangered. However, four months later, under pressure from timber interests, without notice, and at a commission meeting located in Baker City, 400 miles from the Oregon Coast, the Commission inexplicably reversed course and voted to retain the threatened status. At a subsequent hearing in July 2018, members of the public who came to testify about their concerns regarding the reversal were told by the ODFW chair that they would be removed by state police if they attempted to testify about murrelets. A subsequent lawsuit brought by Cascadia Wildlands, Bird Alliance of Oregon, and others, would validate our concerns: the Lane County District Court found that the ODFW Commission failed to provide a basis for the reversal and required them to revisit the decision.

Rare image of a nesting Marbled Murrelet, photo by Thomas Hamer

Two years after the court’s remand, five years after we brought the petition, and more than a quarter century after the murrelet was listed under the state Endangered Species Act, it is time—long past time—for ODFW to take this step forward. The murrelet meets all four of the criteria laid out in regulation for uplisting a species: being at risk of extinction throughout its range in Oregon, ongoing deterioration of its habitat, overutilization of its habitat, and inadequate existing regulations to protect the species. Uplisting does not immediately solve all the challenges facing the murrelet. What it does do, however, is acknowledge that the murrelet has moved perilously close to extinction and forces the state to take a much harder look at what can be done to reverse this trajectory. It is the only reasonable course open to the Commission as a matter of science, as a matter of law, and as a matter of the agency’s mission to protect the state’s wildlife. The time for obfuscation and delay is over. It is time to uplist the Marbled Murrelet.