Seabird to remain a threatened species

The population of marbled murrelets, a seabird listed as a threatened species, is considered to be faring well enough to avoid the “endangered” species status.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in February initially voted to list the bird as endangered, but the chair of the board was absent. Upon his return this week, the board voted 4-2 against “up-listing” the bird.

State Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, was the last to speak at the ODFW meeting this week in opposition to the uplisting.

“It appears that the Oregon population may now be fluctuating around a new, lower baseline,” a January ODFW status report reads. “Based on this monitoring program, the Oregon population was estimated at 10,975 birds in 2015 and was likely somewhere between 8,188 and 13,762 birds. The fairly wide confidence limits for these population estimates reflect the challenges of monitoring a highly mobile seabird that is sparsely distributed.”

The little bird

The marbled murrelet is an unusual bird in that it forages and roosts by day on the ocean, then returns to nest up to 50 miles inland on the branches of old-growth trees. The robin-sized bird is most populous in Alaska and Canada, but its territory stretches as far south as Central California.

The bird’s population began its decline alongside the growth of the timber market from 1936 to 1996, according to the report. Climate change, too, is expected to decrease habitat for the bird, it reads.

The bird has a low reproductive success rate, of around 36 percent, studies show.

“Based on predictions of demographic models (in 2004), using what may be optimistic population parameters, survival rates are 83 to 92 percent, breeding propensity is 90 percent in most years and nest success is 23 to 46 percent,” the report reads. “Extinction probability is high in Oregon — over 80 percent by 2060 for the Siskiyou Coast Range, and over 80 percent by 2100 for the Oregon Coast Range.”

Other birds feed on murrelet eggs, and as with many other seabirds, low reproductive success has also been linked, in part, to El Niño years and other warm-water events,” the report reads.

“Other emerging natural or anthropogenic threats to the species include energy-development projects, harmful algal blooms that produce biotoxins, feather-fouling

surfactants, low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ in the ocean and contaminants in prey that can

biomagnify through the food chain,” the report reads.

The best nesting areas in Oregon for the marbled murrelet are in the Rogue River-Siskiyou and Siuslaw national forests. The Siuslaw National Forest is near Florence, about a four-hour drive north from Brookings.

Status quo

In speaking out against the proposed uplisting, Smith cited Oregon law that said such a change would require proving the natural reproductive potential of the species is in danger of failure due to limited population numbers, disease, predation or other natural or human actions.

Additionally, the ODFW commission must determine populations are “seeing their range decrease, that overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes is occurring or that state or federal programs or regulations are inadequate to protect the species or its habitat,” Smith said.

Although the local economy does not pertain to the criteria for changing a species’ listing status, Smith noted that up-listing the murrelot “will negatively impact” already-struggling communities.

“Most of the affected communities within these areas struggle with some of the highest unemployment in the state, with those in my district still 6 percent below the mean zero pre-recession unemployment,” Smith said. “Counties and their municipalities struggle to provide basic public health and safety services to their residents, while declining enrollment drives impoverished schools, and drug use and abuse continue to rise.”

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