Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

May 10, 2001


Contact: Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity (510) 841-0812
Don Muller, Sitka Conservation Society (907) 747-8808
Eric Holle, Lynn Canal Conservation (907) 766-2295
For More Information: Kittlitz's Murrelet Website, petition, photos.

Alaska Seabird Declining and Threatened by Climate Change, Oil Spills, Vessel Traffic, and Other Factors

Today the Center for Biological Diversity, joined by four local Alaska groups, the Coastal Coalition, Eyak Preservation Council, Lynne Canal Conservation, and Sitka Conservation Society, petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to add the Kittlitz's murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) to the list of federally endangered species. The petition cites climate change, oil spills, vessel traffic, and other factors including precipitous population declines and reproductive failure as reasons for the listing.

The Kittlitz's murrelet is a small diving seabird in the Alcid (Auk) family. The Kittlitz's murrelet is sometimes called the "Glacier Murrelet" because in the summer it forages almost exclusively at the face of tidewater glaciers or near the outflow of glacier streams, and nests in alpine areas in bare patches among the ice and snow. This intimate association with glaciers is unique among seabirds. "Global warming poses the greatest threat to the continued survival of the Kittlitz's murrelet in the long term," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, "Global warming is no longer theoretical. It is very real and it is driving this species towards extinction."

Documented Population Declines and Reproductive Failure. The largest populations of Kittlitz's murrelets occur in Southeast and Southcoastal Alaska, where dramatic population declines have been observed over the past decade or so. In Prince William Sound, data show an average 14.5% annual decline between 1989 and 1998. Recent surveys also suggest a decline of 80% in Glacier Bay between 1991 and 1999. The current worldwide population likely numbers approximately 10,000 individuals, a dramatic decline from the several hundred thousand estimated to occur in the Gulf of Alaska alone in 1972.

A near-total lack of recruitment has been documented in one recent study in Prince William Sound. Recruitment failures are also suspected in Glacier Bay, one of the species' historic strongholds. The precise cause of the Kittlitz's murrelet's inability to produce chicks that survive and mature is unknown, but it is likely linked to one or more of the threats cited in the petition.

"This rapidly vanishing species is telling us, just like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, that we have some very serious environmental problems in the Southeast Alaskan marine environment," said Eric Holle, President of Lynn Canal Conservation, based in Haines, Alaska.

Threatened by Global Warming and Reduced Prey Availability. The Kittlitz's murrelet's habitat is disappearing as Alaska's tidewater glaciers retreat in the face of human-induced climate change. Global warming is happening even faster in Alaska than in temperate regions. Average temperatures in the range of the Kittlitz's murrelet have risen 5° F (3° C) since the 1960s and 8° F (4.5° C) in the winter. In addition to this overall warming trend, the Gulf of Alaska underwent a cyclical regime shift in 1976-1977 from a cold to a warm regime. The warming of ocean temperatures due to this shift has been linked to the decline of the Kittlitz's murrelet forage fish prey such as capelin, herring, and sandlance.

Threatened by Current Energy Policies. The Bush Administration's renunciation of the Kyoto protocol, as well as other pro-industry goals such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, will ensure that the planet heats up faster than ever. "The Bush Administration's energy policy will increase the rate of global warming and virtually ensure the extinction of the Kittlitz's murrelet," said Kassie Siegel, "To protect this species in the long term, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions must be achieved."

Threatened by Marine Oil Pollution, Vessel Traffic and other Factors. The Kittlitz's murrelet is likely the most vulnerable of any extant bird species to oil spills. The species likely suffered a larger proportionate loss of its population than any other species in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Kittlitz's murrelet has not subsequently recovered from the spill in Prince William Sound. "Since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there have been several more close calls. The oil industry and the regulatory community have failed to significantly reduce the risk of future spills, nor can they develop an effective spill response program. As long as oil is shipped through Prince William Sound, the Kittlitz's murrelet and other species are in extreme jeopardy," said David Grimes of the Coastal Coalition, based in Cordova, Alaska.

Disturbance from chronic vessel traffic may cause Kittlitz's murrelets to abandon areas where they feed and breed. Vessel traffic may also scatter the Kittlitz's murrelet's forage fish prey, making it difficult or impossible for the birds to feed. These threats will intensify as human activity in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska continues to increase. "For the Eyak Tribe, protecting the Kittlitz's murrelet and the ecosystem upon which it depends is integral to protecting our culture, heritage, and ancestral lands and waters," said Dune Lankard, founder of the Eyak Preservation Council, based in Cordova.

Threatened by the Bush Administration's Attack on the ESA. Under the ESA, the Fish & Wildlife Service has 90 days to determine whether the Petition presents substantial information indicating that listing may be warranted for the Kittlitz's murrelet. Then, within one year the agency must either propose the species for listing or find that the listing is not warranted. The Fish & Wildlife Service has one additional year to finalize the proposal and designate the species critical habitat.

However, the Bush Administration's latest move in its war on the environment is a legislative proposal that would eliminate the statutory timelines for listing species under the ESA. This proposal, if adopted, would almost certainly preclude the listing of new species that are desperately in need of protection, such as the Kittlitz's murrelet. "It's very sad," said Don Muller of the Sitka Conservation Society, "The Kittlitz's murrelet is yet another species that is disappearing as the result of man's activities, and the Bush Administration is busy trying to repeal all or part of the ESA. If anything, the Act should be strengthened."


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