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Kittlitz's murrelet
Fort Mills Times, March 11, 2009

Group seeks state protection for seabird
By Dan Joling

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An environmental group frustrated by federal inaction to protect an Alaska seabird is turning to the administration of Gov. Sarah Palin.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday filed a petition to protect the Kittlitz's murrelet under Alaska endangered species law because of the effect of global warming on its habitat, the outflow of glaciers into ocean water.

"The Kittlitz's murrelet is one of the most imperiled birds in the United States, and we can't afford to delay any longer in providing it the strongest protections possible," said Shaye Wolf, the San Francisco biologist who wrote the petition.

Palin strongly opposed another petition by the group that led to the federal listing of polar bears as threatened because of the loss of their habitat, sea ice. The state is suing to overturn that 2008 decision, claiming that federal officials did not use the best available scientific data in demonstrating whether bears could survive and adapt to changing climate conditions.

The Kittlitz's murrelet is closely associated with glaciers. During summer breeding, the birds concentrate in coastal waters near tidewater glaciers and glacier outflows. The birds have large eyes that allow them to find fish, zooplankton and other prey in turbid glacial waters, Wolf said.

Global warming has increased surface temperatures in Alaska and contributed to the dramatic retreat and thinning of coastal glaciers, she said, reducing the Kittlitz's murrelet foraging habitat.

The birds number have declined 80 to 90 percent in two decades, Wolf said. The group estimates there are 15,000 in Alaska and perhaps 5,000 more in Siberia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented declines of more than 80 percent in at least four study areas, including Prince William Sound and the Kenai Fjords.

The Center for Biological Diversity in 2001 sought federal endangered species protection for Kittlitz's murrelets. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 determined that the seabirds warranted protection but were "precluded" from listing by other agency priorities. The agency said it would prepare a proposal to list the Kittlitz's murrelet when money became available.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Bruce Woods said Thursday the birds have moved up on the agency's hierarchy list and a status review could begin within a year, but it's not certain.

Wolf said the Kittlitz's murrelets also are threatened by oil spills. Hundreds are estimated to drown each year in fishing nets, Wolf said, and boat traffic, including cruise ships, near glaciers disrupt the birds' ability to find food for themselves and their chicks.

The ultimate solution is to curb warming, she said, but the state could take commonsense measures to reduce threats. Most entanglements and drownings occur at night, she said, and night fishing could be limited in the birds habitat. Slowing down vessels also could help.

Doug Vincent-Lang, the state's endangered species coordinator, said state endangered species law varies widely from the federal version.

Creatures make the state list if it's determined that a population has reached a threshold so low that their continued existence is threatened with extinction. The department will review the petition and seek to make that determination, Vincent-Lang said.

Department biologists know that the murrelets' numbers have dropped in some areas and have taken steps to fill in data gaps on the birds.

"There's reason to be concerned," he said.

Wolf said a rejection of the bird for the state list would be a surprise.

"The science is so strong and so clear that global warming is jeopardizing the Kittlitz's murrelet, and they're declining so much, it's inconceivable to me that the state could not list the Kittlitz's murrelet."

Copyright © 2009 Fort Mill Times, South Carolina

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton