Protecting Sensitive Species

The Marbled Murrelet needs your help now more than ever!

In December 2016, the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the draft of their Environmental Impact Statement (dEIS) for six alternative Long-Term Conservation Strategies for Marbled Murrelet on 1.4 million acres of forested state trust lands that provide nesting habitat for this unique seabird. Because these land are public, the we have a voice in how they are managed.

Unfortunately and ironically, none of the six alternatives does enough to help prevent the extirpation of the Marbled Murrelets in Washington, where its population has declined 44% since 2001. The plight of the murrelet is so dire that in December 2016 the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission uplisted this species’ status from “threatened” to the more serious “endangered.”

The Marbled Murrelet needs your help now more than ever.

The conservation community has been involved in the development of Long-Term Conservation Strategy for several years and successfully advocated for the inclusion of an alternative based on the 2008 Science Team Report. This was the best-available science at the time but more current research has been published and should be fully incorporated into at least one alternative.

Fortunately, a coalition of conservation organizations has been working to develop such an alternative, one that gives the Marbled Murrelet its best chance for survival in Washington. The details of this alternative will be available by the end of February; the goals and framework of the strategy are outlined below. Please show your support for this alternative before the end of the public comment period on Thursday March 9.
Please request that Board of Natural Resources analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before they select a preferred alternative.

Submit your comments online at sepacenter@nulldnr.wa.gov or by letter or postcard to SEPA Center, PO Box 47015, Olympia, WA 98504-7015. Please include the file number “12-042001” on letters and postcards and in the subject line of comments send by e-mail.

The Conservation Alternative aims to achieve the following biological goals adapted from the 2008 Science Team Report and the 1997 Recovery Plan for the Marbled Murrelet:

1.  a stable or increasing murrelet population for at least a 10-year period
2.  an increasing geographic distribution of murrelets
3.  a murrelet population that is resilient to disturbances (e.g. habitat loss from stochastic events such as wildfires, insect outbreaks, windthrow)
The Conservative Alternative also recommends:

1. Protecting all current and future habitat within the next 50 years (all habitat classified higher than “low quality” by the DNR) and/or
2. Protecting all Emphasis Areas and Special Habitat Areas from Alternative E (collectively “Conservation Areas” when combined with Marbled Murrelet Management Areas)
3. Establishing no-touch 150-meter buffers around all occupied nesting sites and old forest in the Olympic Experimental State Forest planning unit as mapped in the 2008 Science Team Report.

Talking Points to Consider

Predicted population decline: All six of the current strategies being considered by the DNR show a declining population trend for the next 50 years. None of the alternatives contribute to Marbled Murrelet survival and recovery. This is demonstrated by the DNR’s own population modeling. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

Recent uplisting to “endangered.” In December 2016, the Marbled Murrelet’s status was uplisted from a “threatened” to the more serious “endangered” by the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission. The dEIS Alternatives do not properly reflect this imperiled state, as evidenced by the ongoing population decline in the dEIS population viability analysis and by the 44% smaller population size (from 2001-2015) documented in the 2016 status review. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

Best-available science: Alternative F, which is based on the 2008 Science Team Report, comes closest to reaching Marbled Murrelet recovery goals, but unfortunately this alternative does not include important, more recent scientific findings. For example, a 2015 study identified the regional importance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca as a “hotspot,” not previously recognized, of murrelet at-sea density adjacent to high/higher quality nesting habitat. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

“Bridge” habitat: DNR-managed lands contain approximately 15% (213,000 acres) of all existing Marbled Murrelet habitat in the state, and this habitat is needed to serve as a temporal “bridge” to support the bird’s population over the next 30-50 years while it is most vulnerable to extirpation. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

Harvest volumes: Alternatives A-E set harvest volumes between 35,000 and 49,000 acres DNR’s best option for protecting Marbled Murrelets, Alternative F, allows the harvest of 25,000 acres of mature forest habitat that is needed for the population to stabilize and recover. The DNR and USFWS should consider a stronger, more effective alternative with considerably lower harvest volumes to prevent the local extinction of the Marbled Murrelet. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

Precautionary approach: Without explicit population recovery criteria at the state or federal levels, the adopted LTCS Alternative could preclude murrelet recovery if it does not preserve enough existing and future habitat.  Under these conditions, a precautionary approach—as outlined in the Conservation Alternative—is appropriate. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

Mitigation for loss of high-quality habitat: The restoration of low quality habitat over time does not adequately mitigate for the loss of higher-quality habitat that currently exists.  Washington’s murrelet population cannot afford further habitat losses in its imperiled status, or it may become functionally extirpated before future, low quality habitat is restored gradually over time. If murrelets become functionally extirpated from Washington, the lack of genetic flow and genetic variability will become a more significant threat to the persistence of the species at the range-wide scale. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

Edge-effects: Not all of the dEIS Alternatives adequately ameliorate the edge effects associated with habitat fragmentation.  For example, Alternatives A and B completely lack contiguous, blocked-up Conservation Areas.  Alternative F stipulates that Marbled Murrelet Management Areas only have a 50% habitat target in the Olympic Experimental State Forest; this insufficient for achieving one of the goals of the Conservation Areas—to minimize edge effects. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative in a Supplemental EIS.

Buffers. Buffers on occupied sites of 100 meters or less (Alt. A-F) are too narrow to protect murrelet nests from predators, a suboptimal microclimate, and/or wind throw. Buffers of 150 meters should be part of the preferred alternative. Please recommend the BNR analyze the Conservation Alternative, which provides for these buffers, in a Supplemental EIS.

About Marbled Murrelets

Marbled Murrelets are shy, robin-sized seabirds that live along the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to California. They are members of the alcid, or auk, family of surface-diving seabirds, which includes Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted Puffins, Common Murres, Rhinoceros Auklets, and several other species.

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Life Cycle of Marbled Murrelets

Marbled-Murrelet-single-egg-Nick_Hatch_US_ForestServiceMarbled Murrelets spend the winter off shore and, in Washington, begin moving inland in March to nest. For a month, the parents take turns incubating their egg, changing places every 24 hours at dawn. While one parent sits on the egg (the size of a chicken’s egg), the other forages at sea.

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Marbled Murrelet Conservation Issues in Washington

If you are new to conservation advocacy and unfamiliar with the many acronyms, please take a moment to read 11 Acronyms to Save the Murrelet

Marbled Murrelet’s nesting habitat is present on federal lands (national parks, national forests), tribal lands, private land, and state land. In Washington, 11% of the murrelets nesting habitat occurs on forested lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

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Why does BHAS Care About Marbled Murrelets?

The Marbled Murrelet’s sensitivity to changes in both the forest and marine environments make it an “indicator” species for the health of these ecosystems. The dramatic declines in murrelet populations indicate other species of animals and plants are also threatened and in decline.

The Black Hills Audubon Society is also interested in the Marbled Murrelet because this bird nests in our “neighborhood.”

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Marbled Murrelets: Resources

Periodic Status Review of the Marbled Murrelet in Washington (2016).  Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Background on 44% decline of the species in Washington State between 2001-2015.

Recommendations and Supporting Analysis for Conservation Opportunities for the Marbled Murrelet Long-Term Conservation Strategy (aka The 2008 Science Team Report published by the DNR).

Marbled Murrelet Survival Project For the most up-to-date information on conservation advocacy during the development of the Long-Term Conservation Strategy

Audubon Washington Offers updates and excellent resources for chapters state-wide under “Chapter Conservation Projects and Programs.”

Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, Non-fiction book, available in paperback from Mountaineers Books (2013). Part naturalist detective story and part environmental inquiry, by Maria Ruth (BHAS) Member

Habitat associations of marbled murrelets during the nesting season in nearshore waters along the Washington to California coast, Raphael et al., 2015, Journal of Marine Systems