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Bush moves to eliminate Endangered Species protection for marbled murrelet

Going against a recommendation from its own scientists, the Bush administration took another step toward removing the marbled murrelet from the threatened species list, which could ultimately increase logging in old growth forests.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided Wednesday that marbled murrelets in Washington, Oregon and California, though they continue to decline in population, should not be considered for protection apart from their more abundant cousins in Canada and Alaska.
Marbled murrelet
Marbled murrelet
Bush administration moves to change protection for marbled murrelet


By JEFF BARNARD
Associated Press writer

GRANTS PASS - Going against a recommendation from its own scientists, the Bush administration took another step toward removing the marbled murrelet from the threatened species list, which could ultimately increase logging in old growth forests.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided Wednesday that marbled murrelets in Washington, Oregon and California, though they continue to decline in population, should not be considered for protection apart from their more abundant cousins in Canada and Alaska.

The marbled murrelet is a robin-sized seabird that spends most of its life at sea, but flies as much as 50 miles inland to lay a single egg in a mossy depression on a large branch of an old-growth conifer. The habitat needs of the murrelet, combined with the northern spotted owl and salmon, resulted in sharp declines in Northwest logging in the past 10 years, particularly on national forests that provide 90 percent of the murrelet's habitat.

Endangered Species Act protection remains in place for the bird on the West Coast, but Fish and Wildlife will review its status across its entire range in the lower 48, British Columbia and Alaska - a process that could take a year. Depending on what the review finds, Fish and Wildlife could recommend the murrelet be taken off the threatened species list, a process that would take another year.

The decision came from the office of Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson, the Bush administration's point man on the Endangered Species Act. It went against the recommendation from the Northwest regional office of Fish and Wildlife in Portland, which felt the birds in Washington, Oregon and Northern California constitute a distinct population worthy of protection.

The action was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the timber industry demanding a review of the threatened species listings for the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl, which prompted sharp cutbacks in logging to protect their old growth forest habitats.

"The real question from our perspective is a status review now needs to look at not only the California, Oregon, and Washington population, but the population as it goes up the coast into Canada and Alaska,'' said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resources Council, which brought the lawsuit.

"Down the road if it's determined this isn't a species that needs to be on the list, there may be more opportunities to manage the land. The range of the marbled murrelet overlaps significantly with the spotted owl and many of our coastal salmon runs.''

The Endangered Species Act offers protection to a species as a whole as well as what is called a distinct population segment, but does not define what that is. Fish and Wildlife adopted a policy in 1996 saying a distinct population segment must be discrete and significant to warrant protection apart from the whole.

Environmentalists were outraged that Interior used a different interpretation of the policy to override Fish and Wildlife biologists.

"It's ignoring the biology and playing games with the legal standard to say this is no longer a population segment we can list,'' said Kristin Boyles, a lawyer for Earthjustice, an environmental public interest law firm in Seattle.

"This is yet another example of the Bush administration agenda to open up Pacific Northwest old growth forests to logging,'' said Susan Ash of the Audubon Society of Portland.

Specifically, the Pacific region office found that the Northwest birds were distinct from their cousins in Canada and Alaska. Losing them would wipe out a significant portion of the gene pool, create a gap in 18 percent of their range, and threaten the species' longterm viability. Further, it is unclear how Canada's new law protecting the murrelet as a threatened species will work out, particularly in protecting old growth forests.

Interior changed those conclusions, saying the Northwest population was not genetically, physically, behaviorally or ecologically different from Canadian birds, and that Canada provided just as good protection for the birds and their habitat as the U.S.

"In the end we agreed with the assistant secretary's office that those differences are not significant enough,'' said David Patte, spokesman for Fish and Wildlife's Portland office. "It's kind of a policy call. They didn't change any of the biology in the report.''

The review found that the Washington, Oregon and California murrelets, which number about 24,000, suffered a 10 percent decline in population in the past 10 years, which was comparable to the 30 percent decline in the past 30 years reported in British Columbia, where the murrelet numbers about 66,000. Alaska claims 860,000 murrelets.

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