Google “marbled murrelet” and “secretive” and you get lots of hits. The bird flies fast and nests high up. It doesn’t lounge on land waiting to be counted. It feeds in the ocean and darts home at dusk.
It’s like a phantom, and it’s what the timber industry flails at.
Since 1990, the spotted owl has been the poster species for anti-logging sentiment. But the marbled murrelet, listed in 1992, has been a threatened species for almost as long, and it’s ready to take over as the biggest obstacle to healthy forests and healthy communities.
The barred owl has spoiled the narrative that the spotted owl can be saved by halting logging. The spotted owl may be chased from the woods no matter how few large trees are cut. The brutish barred owl has become such a public enemy that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will resort to shooting a few thousand in desperation.
When it comes to the murrelet, however, no inconvenient predator ruins the storyline. Oil spills kill murrelets offshore. But inland, among the trees, the murrelet has no nemesis comparable to the barred owl. The only solution, according to environmentalists, is to stop cutting down the tall trees that murrelets like. It’s a bullet-proof argument, never mind the social and economic costs.
Murrelets are adaptable. They have been known to fly as far inland as 50 miles to find a place to nest. Their nests have been found at sea level and at 5,000 feet. If a murrelet can’t find a suitable tree along the Oregon Coast, it isn’t much of a murrelet.
Still, conservation groups have used the marbled murrelet to shut down timber harvests, particularly in the Elliott State Forest in Douglas and Coos counties.
The timber industry’s latest murrelet-related setback came this month in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Douglas County joined the timber industry’s American Forest Resource Council and the Carpenters Industrial Council in a suit challenging how Fish and Wildlife has applied the Endangered Species Act.
Judge Richard Leon dismissed the claims in a ruling that addressed technical points. Basically, the judge declined to second-guess the agency. The decision was thorough and defensible, though disappointing to the timber industry, which argues that murrelets aren’t doing poorly at all if viewed throughout their range.
Fish and Wildlife estimates 91 percent of the world’s marbled murrelets are in Alaska. Another 7 percent reside in British Columbia. The remaining 2 percent are in Washington, Oregon and California.
The farther south one goes, the harder it is to find murrelets. The long-term prospects of the few hundred murrelets remaining in Central California are poor. Yet they are influencing forestland management in Oregon.
If that doesn’t change, Googling “marbled murrelet” will yield “overgrown forests” and “impoverished communities.”