Does Ashy Storm Petrel Ruling Imply that Bush-Era “Ignore the Science” Policies are Being Perpetuated at DOI?

Brushing aside scientific evidence that the ashy storm petrel population is in profound decline, the Interior Department has ruled that this seabird is undeserving of federal protection.

Having expected better from this new administration, disappointed environmentalists think it looks a lot like same-old, same-old at Salazar-led Interior.

The ashy storm petrel (Oceanodroma homochroa), a smoke-gray seabird about the size of a purple martin, nests and forages on the offshore islands and heavily-used nearshore waters of California. Boaters plying coastal waters near San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are very familiar with the bird, since there are significant concentrations in all three areas.
You can see this interesting bird for yourself during visits to Channel Islands National Park, Cabrillo National Monument, Point Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Redwood National Park.

The ashy storm petrel is not a glamour species like the California condor or ivory-billed woodpecker. Consequently, there’s been very little media interest in this bird’s sad decline. But if Joe and Jill Public can be forgiven for not knowing or caring about what happens to O. homochroa, the same cannot be said for government officials charged with protecting it.

It’s no secret in the scientific community and among wildlife advocates that the ashy storm petrel population has been declining since at least the 1970s and is now in deep trouble. Wildlife biologists documented a 76% decline in the bird’s at-sea abundance in the northern part of its range during 1985-2006, and also determined that the population in the Farallon Islands -- the largest concentration of the birds and the most important nesting area -- has decreased by a whopping 42 percent over the past two decades. Trends like these are so alarming that the World Conservation Union and BirdLife International have both listed the species as endangered and urged responsible agencies to intervene with all due haste.

The ashy storm petrel faces multiple threats that include, but are not limited to, excessive predation of adults and chicks at island breeding and nesting sites, declining food availability associated with the warming and acidification of ocean water, oil spills, night-time collisions with lighted structures, pesticide pollution that causes eggshell thinning, and sea level rise that may inundate vital nesting habitat. Any one of these problems is serious. In combination, they cast a dark shadow over the future of this species.

In October 2007 an environmental NGO, the Center for Biological Diversity, submitted a petition to have the ashy storm petrel federally listed as a threatened and endangered species. In May 2008, the Department of the Interior announced that listing may be warranted, promised a listing decision in October, and launched a full status review.

DOI missed the October 15 deadline, but some nine months later agreed to have the listing decision ready by August 12, 2009. When the listing decision was finally released, it was, to say the very least, extremely disappointing. After examining all the evidence, DOI ruled that the ashy storm petrel is not endangered and should not be protected under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Given the weight of the argument for endangered status, advocates for federal listing were left to conclude that the DOI decision was based on political considerations or other factors instead of the scientific facts in evidence. Shaye Wolf, a seabird biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity put it this way: “The decision reads like a laundry list of excuses to avoid acting to protect the ashy storm petrel….”

Time will tell whether this particular ruling is an isolated incident or a trend indicator. Meanwhile, environmental advocates believe they have good reason to be concerned about DOI’s commitment to protect imperiled species.