OLYMPIA — Getting listed as “threatened under the state’s endangered species law nearly 25 years ago didn’t do the marbled murrelet much good.
The little seabird’s population has been in free fall, dropping by 4.4 percent annually for the past decade.
Fearing that the species could be extinct in Washington within 50 years, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is proposing to “uplist” the murrelet to “endangered” status — the top tier for species that have hit the lowest lows.
The murrelet’s advocates welcome the move, but they say the new label will be no more than that — a label.
“Calling them ‘endangered’ cranks up the volume on the alarm but what difference does it make if the fire department’s not coming?” said Peter Goldman, an attorney representing the Sierra Club, Washington Audubon Society and 22 other conservation groups pushing for greater murrelet protections. “It doesn’t mean any rules will change, and the (current) rules are so weak that none of it really matters.”
State officials admit a bump up in the listings will do little for beleaguered murrelet population, now estimated at 7,500 birds in Washington. State endangered status comes with no funding or added protections.
“Primarily, it signals a call to action,” said Hannah Anderson, Fish and Wildlife’s listing and recovery section manager. “It raises a flag that this species has been listed since 1993 and it’s not improving.”
Related to the auk and about size of a robin, the murrelet spends much of its life at sea but nests in old-growth trees.
The bird is facing challenges in both of these worlds. At sea, the murrelet’s chief food source — herring and other forage fish — is in decline. Puget Sound herring stocks fell by more than 25 percent between 1986 and 2010, according to a Fish and Wildlife report. Candlefish — another nutrient-rich food source — was recently listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Forage fish depletion has driven murrelets to rely on less-nutritious food, such as krill and zooplankton.
“Diminished food availability has led to other problems, like less reproductive success,” Anderson said. Murrelet hatchlings have increasingly been starving to death in their nests.
Suitable nesting habitat has declined by 27 percent since the murrelet was listed as a state threatened species in 1993. The vast majority of this loss was attributed to timber harvests in public and private lands.
Logging has “fragmented” old-growth stands, allowing crows, jays and other forest edge predators to raid murrelet nests, Anderson said.
The highest concentrations of murrelets are along the coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Recent surveys have noted a few murrelets in Kitsap County waterways, including Rich Passage, between Bainbridge Island and South Kitsap, and the north end of Hood Canal.
The Fish and Wildlife commission will have a presentation and hearing on the murrelet’s uplisting on Friday in Olympia. Uplisting approval is slated for early December.
Murrelet advocates say state uplisting could push federal uplisting. The murrelet is also listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. A federal endangered status boost could trigger tougher regulations and greater conservation funding.
An upgrade on the state list could light a fire under the state Department of Natural Resources, which has postponed a long-term habitat conservation plan, Goldman said. Under consideration are murrelet protections on more than 730,000 acres of DNR-managed forest.
State forests contain just 15 percent of all existing murrelet habitat, but the land is “disproportionately important” for the bird’s survival, according to Kara Whittaker, a scientist and policy analyst with the Washington Forest Law Center.
DNR lands are generally closer to marine waters than federally-protected lands, allowing nesting murrelets easier access to marine food sources.
Rules protecting murrelet habitat on private lands are “thin” and generally rely on the “honor system” for compliance, Whittaker said.
“For private land owners, the rules are very, very weak,” she said. “Hopefully, there will be more scrutiny after the uplist.”