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For Immediate Release, February 5, 2007

Contact: Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495

Murrelets Declining Throughout Range, Says U.S.G.S.:
Bush Proposal to Remove From Endangered Species List
Is Based on False Information

The marbled murrelet has been listed as an endangered species in California, Oregon, and Washington since 1992. Because larger populations occur in Canada and Alaska, the listing used the U.S./Canada border to define the California/Oregon/Washington population. On September 2, 2004, the Bush Administration announced its intent to remove the California/Oregon/Washington murrelet population from the endangered species list. While admitting the population is still endangered, the administration asserted it did not qualify for Endangered Species Act protection because there is no difference in management between the United States and Canada. Combining the California/Oregon/Washington population with the approximately 66,000 birds in Canada and a baseless projection of 860,000 birds in Alaska, the Department of Interior declared the murrelet to be safe from extinction.

The announcement was controversial because it contradicted the recommendations of both an independent review team and the regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Associated Press, for example, reported that:

“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…

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’ long-term 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.”

(Jeff Barnard, “Bush Administration Moves to Change Protection for Marbled Murrelet,” Corvallis Gazette-Times, 2 September 2004)

To help settle the issue, the Fish and Wildlife Service requested the U.S. Geological Service conduct a study of the murrelet’s status in Canada and Alaska and review the differences in management between Canada and the United States. The U.S.G.S.’s February 2007 study concludes that Alaska and Canada populations have precipitously declined—by 70 percent—in the past 25 years. Contrary to the Department of Interior’s assertion of 870,000 birds in Alaska, the state has just 270,000. Also contrary to the Department of Interior assertions, the U.S.G.S. concluded that that conservation measures in Canada are substantially weaker than measures in the United States under the Endangered Species Act.

“The report proves the marbled murrelet is in trouble across its range due to habitat loss,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Yet the Bush administration is doing everything possible to strip it of protection. Once again the administration is suppressing science to further reckless exploitation of the nation’s natural resources, in this case logging of the last remaining old-growth forests. The administration overstated the size of the Alaska population, overstated the amount of Canadian habitat protection, and ignored its own proposal in order to eliminate most habitat protection in the United States.”

On September 12, 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposal to eliminate 95 percent of the 3.9 million acres of critical habitat previously designated for the murrelet. The agency’s proposed revision would protect just 221,692 acres.


Status Review of the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) in Alaska and British Columbia

J.F. Piatt, U.S. Geological Survey, K.J. Kuletz, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, A.E. Burger, University of Victoria, S.A. Hatch, U.S. Geological Survey, V.L. Friesen, Queen’s University, T.P. Birt, Queens University, M.L. Arimitsu, U.S. Geological Survey, G.S. Drew, U.S. Geological Survey, A.M.A. Harding, Alaska Pacific University, and K.S. Bixler, U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. Geological Survey, February, 2007

Population Structure

“The genetic studies substantially confirmed previous findings on population structure in the marbled murrelet. Our present work finds three populations: (1) one comprising birds in the central and western Aleutian Islands; (2) one comprising birds in central California; and (3) one comprising birds within the center of the range from the eastern Aleutians to northern California.”

70 Percent Decline in Last 25 Years

“Compiling available abundance information, we estimated that in the recent past, marbled murrelets in Alaska numbered on the order of 1 million birds. We were unable to generate a similar estimate for historical population size in British Columbia….Alaska murrelet numbers declined significantly at five of eight trend sites at annual rates of -5.4 to -12.7 percent since the early 1990s. Applying these rates of decline to the historical population estimate, the current murrelet population in Alaska is projected to be on the order of 270,000 birds. This represents an overall population decline of about 70 percent during the past 25 years.”

“In British Columbia, available trend data indicate that murrelet populations there have experienced similar declines. We updated a recent (2002) population estimate for British Columbia, concluding that there are now between 54,000 and 92,000 murrelets in British Columbia. The rates of decline we observed are within, but at the high end of, a range of rates expected by chance.”

Gillnetting, Oil Spills, Logging and Predation Impacts

“Given that declines were estimated for sites over essentially the entire northern range of the species, there is cause for concern about the species’ status. In their marine habitats, marbled murrelets overlap with salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.) gillnetting operations in British Columbia and in Alaska (especially in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska), and annual bycatch mortality is likely in the low thousands per year, although bycatch rates are difficult to measure. The species’ inshore distribution coincides with high levels of vessel traffic and makes them especially vulnerable to both chronic oil pollution and to catastrophic spills (e.g., the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill [EVOS] in south-central Alaska, which is estimated to have killed 12,000 to 15,000 murrelets). In their forested nesting habitats, marbled murrelets have lost about 15 percent of their suitable nesting habitat in Southeast Alaska, and 33 to 49 percent in British Columbia, from industrial-scale logging within the past half century. Increased predation also may be a threat to murrelet populations, related to fragmentation and edge effects from logging and development, and recent population increases observed for some important murrelet predators…”

Climate Change Likely a Factor As Well

“Nesting habitat losses cannot explain the declines observed in areas where industrial logging has not occurred on a large scale (e.g., Prince William Sound) or at all (Glacier Bay). The apparent change in population size and rates of decline reported for the marbled murrelet are large, and we therefore considered alternative explanations and precedents for changes of similar magnitude in other marine wildlife populations in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean. The declines are likely real, and related to combined and cumulative effects from climate-related changes in the marine ecosystem (most likely the 1977 regime shift) and human activities (logging, gillnet bycatch, oil pollution).”

Canadian Management Substantially Weaker Than U.S. Management

“Unavailable at the time the U.S. F.W.S. completed its five-year review of the marbled murrelet in WOC was a report by the Forest Practices Board (FPB) in British Columbia that was critical of the province’s implementation of the existing forest practices regime for conservation of forest nesting habitat of this species (Forest Practices Board 2004). The Forest Practices Board is an independent, public watchdog that conducts audits and investigations on how well industry and the government are meeting the intent of British Columbia’s forest practices legislation. The FPB concluded that conservation of marbled murrelet habitat under the Forest and Range Practices Act is limited and very slow. The FPB was particularly concerned that while the process of developing a conservation strategy for marbled murrelets is still ongoing, logging projects continue to be approved, thereby eliminating future options for murrelet habitat conservation, especially on the southern British Columbia coast where conservation is most needed. The FPB also was critical of British Columbia’s implementation of the Identified Wildlife Management Strategy under the FRPA. Under this strategy, British Columbia arbitrarily restricted protection of forest habitat for all IWMS species to less than 1 percent of the mature timber land base (in which most murrelet nesting habitat occurs). In the FPB’s view, this prevents conservation of the most important murrelet nesting habitat and deflects conservation to less suitable habitat, leading the researchers to conclude: The USFWS also may wish to examine new information on forest habitat management in British Columbia and in particular the efficacy of existing laws and regulations in promoting the conservation of marbled murrelet nesting habitat there.”

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