OLYMPIA — A seabird that could soon disappear from Puget Sound was granted top-tier status on the state’s endangered species list.
The state Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday unanimously approved moving the marbled murrelet from “threatened” to “endangered” species status.
Efforts to save the tiny seabird have had little success.
“Despite past (conservation) management, we are seeing a 44 percent decline since 2001,” Hannah Anderson, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s listing and recovery section manager, told the commission.
The “uplisting” raises the murrelet’s profile but it comes with no added protections or funding.
Anderson says the move could be a “call to action” for state agencies and lawmakers.
The shy, robin-sized birds spend much of their lives at sea but require old-growth trees for nesting. Large stands of tall trees are increasingly rare, especially near the shores of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where murrelets have all but disappeared.
Suitable murrelet nesting habitat has declined by nearly 30 percent since the murrelet was listed as a state threatened species in 1993. Much of the loss is attributed to timber harvests on public and private lands.
Murrelets are having a tough time at sea as well. Their main food source — herring and other forage fish — have been in sharp decline. Hungry murrelets have less success with reproduction, and many hatchlings have been found starved to death in their nests.
Only about 7,500 murrelets are left in Washington. Their populations are strongest on the Olympic Peninsula, but development pressures are mounting. Within 50 years, the bird might be extinct in the state, according to Fish and Wildlife projections.
The uplist drew a flood of comments in recent weeks. Of the 7,500 emails and letters received, only a handful opposed the uplisting, Anderson said.
The commission approved four other moves on the endangered species list. Lynx, a small wild cat that numbers less than 60 in the state, was also uplisted to “endangered.” The American white pelican was downlisted to “threatened” and the bald eagle and peregrine falcon were removed from the list. Since the 1990s, eagles and falcons have grown in population and distribution around the state.
The murrelet’s status drew by far the largest number of comments.
Environmental groups say protecting the murrelet would help a host of other species. Its nesting habitat happens to contain some of the rarest and richest forest ecosystems in the region.
Kara Whittaker, a scientist at the Washington Forest Law Center, said old forest habitat is “also home to a vast diversity of plants and animals, mitigate climate change, and provide numerous other benefits to society, such as clean air and water.”
She and several groups hope the bird’s uplisting will spur the state Department of Natural Resources to halt or sharply reduce logging on state-owned timberlands.