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Creature Feature: The Marbled Murrelet is a Flagship Species in the Old-Growth Forest Preservation Movement.
The marbled murrelet spends most of its life at sea, but in much of its range it nests only in old-growth forests. That’s a big problem for this chunky little bird, since good nesting habitat is getting scarcer in the North Pacific Coast region every year. Low reproductive success may spell doom for this little-known species if the logging of old-growth and mature forests isn’t carefully constrained in national forests along the North Pacific Coast. With thousands of jobs at stake in the timber industry, this issue is a political hot potato.
Those of us who’ve been around for a while have gotten used to the idea that the northern spotted owl is the poster child for the old-growth forest preservation movement. The loss and fragmentation of its old-growth forest habitat in the Pacific Northwest, coupled with increased competition and hybridization with barred owls, still bodes ill for the spotted owl’s long-term future. Whether the remaining population (fewer than 2,500 nesting pairs) can be sustained will depend on our continued willingness to preserve large stands of old-growth forest at the cost of logging industry jobs. To say that emotions run high on this issue is to greatly understate the case.
While old-growth forest preservation advocates continue to go to bat for the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, they’re focusing a good deal of attention these days on the plight of yet another species, the marbled murrelet. They’d like everybody in America to be aware that this little seabird’s continued existence depends on an adequate supply of old-growth forest along the North Pacific Coast, and that its federally-listed threatened status entitles it to a higher standard of critical habitat protection than it is presently getting.
In a manner of speaking, the marbled murrelet is well on its way to becoming “the new spotted owl.” Because the ecological and economic stakes are so high, it behooves all of us to become better informed about this bird and the controversy surrounding actions that may be needed to rescue it from extinction.
The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), a member of the auk family, is a chunky little seabird that's about the size of a robin. Though sometimes confused with its closest relative, the long-billed murrelet, the marbled murrelet is generally easy to recognize by way of its narrow pointed wings, slender black bill, and seasonally-varying distinctive plumage. During the breeding season, the plumage molts to brown, a camouflage tactic that is suited to its preferred nesting habitat. The rest of the year it's white mixed with gray and black (white underneath and dark gray or black at the crown, nape, wings and back).
The marbled murrelet is found along the North Pacific Coast from the Aleutian Islands to northern California. Being a fish eater, it especially likes nutrient-rich upwelling areas or shallow bays and estuaries. Most feeding takes place in nearshore waters less than 100 feet deep. The bird's diet includes a variety of small sea creatures, but consists primarily of small fish such as sandeels, smelt, capelin, herring, anchovies, and shiner perch.
Much to the delight of those who have seen it in action, it uses its wings in penguin-like fashion to gracefully “fly” under water when pursuing fish. In the air, the bird flies fairly close to the water and clips along at 60 miles per hour or better. It's been clocked at least once at 98.
The marbled murrelet has a host of interesting characteristics, but its nesting habits have drawn the lion’s share of attention lately. Murrelets don't gather in large nesting colonies like many other seabirds do. They go ashore to do their nesting, and they seek seclusion for protection.
In the treeless northern part of its range, the murrelet nests amid the rocks of the scree slopes. In the southern part of its range, the bird travels as much as 45 miles inland to nest in old-growth and mature forests, selecting broad, moss-covered, horizontal branches that provide safe platforms for nests and chicks high in giant conifers such as western hemlock, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and coastal redwood. The nests may be as much as 150 feet off the ground. (It wasn’t until 1974 that a tree-climber confirmed that this is what nesting murrelets do.)
Only old-growth trees or unusually large trees in mature forests have physical features suitable for murrelet nesting. The trees that the birds select are typically over 200 years old.
Unfortunately, recent decades have seen murrelet numbers decrease so alarmingly that it is now considered a globally threatened species. In 1992, the marbled murrelet was federally listed as threatened in Oregon, Washington, and California (where it is also state-listed as an endangered species). The status of the Alaska and Canada populations is currently under review.
While factors such as changing ocean conditions, diminished food supplies, gill net entanglement, oil pollution, and increased predation are partially responsible for the bird’s decline, scientists believe that the main culprit is lowered breeding success and high chick mortality rooted in the loss of nesting habitat caused by industrial logging in the old-growth and mature forests of the North Pacific Coast. The same cutting and fragmentation of old-growth tracts that has proven so harmful to spotted owls, salmon, and myriad other species in the North Pacific Coast region is now helping to push the marbled murrelet toward extinction.
The numbers are very sobering. A USGS report released several years ago concluded that murrelet populations in Alaska and Canada have declined by nearly 70 percent in the last 25 years, plunging from over a million birds in the mid-1980s to only about 350,000 in 2007. The most recent status review of the murrelet population in the southern reaches of the bird’s range concluded that the current trend in the Lower 48, an annual decline in the range of 4 to 7 percent, could very well lead to the bird’s extinction in northern California, Oregon, and Washington except for a remnant population in the Puget Sound vicinity.
The American Bird Conservancy, Earthjustice, and a number of other environmental NGOs have cited provisions of the Endangered Species Act in demanding increased federal protection for the marbled murrelet. They have also argued that the bird’s federal listing status should be upgraded to endangered in the Lower 48, and that more effort should be expended to protect nesting habitat in non-federal forested land and nearshore coastal areas.
Since increased protection for the bird has to include additional logging restrictions in the national forests, it imposes a substantial financial burden on an industry that has long been a major supplier of jobs, wealth, and tax revenues in the North Pacific Coast region. The costs of increased protection on federal lands are thought to total at least $70 million, and some logging industry proponents have claimed that the region’s direct and indirect losses could run as much as 20 times that high in the long haul. Costs aside, it’s certain to be a good while before we see the end of the hotly contested battles being fought over this issue in the federal courts, in the halls of Congress, and in the court of public opinion.
For the moment, at least, marbled murrelet protection seems to be holding its ground, and perhaps even gaining a bit. A Bush administration proposal to delist the marbled murrelet and eliminate federal protection for the bird did not survive legal challenges, having been proven at odds with the federal government’s own research findings. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had either been placed in a terrible bind or had gotten caught trying to pull a fast one (take your pick), announced last month that the threatened marbled murrelet should remain listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The national parks of the North Pacific Coast have an important role to play in marbled murrelet recovery. Olympic National Park protects an abundance of nesting habitat, and even Mount Rainier National Park provides some (though it isn’t well documented). In Redwood National and State Parks, which provides nesting trees for most of northern California’s murrelet population, a good deal of effort is being expended to reduce murrelet predation by corvids (Stellar’s jays, crows, and ravens) through educating visitors on the need to avoid leaving food scraps behind. Research has shown that once corvids have learned to repeatedly search an area for food scraps left by hikers, campers, and picnickers, they are more likely to eventually spy the murrelet nests in the vicinity and feed on the eggs and chicks.