Finding solutions for murrelets and coastal communities

Finding solutions for murrelets and coastal communities

Conservation Northwest / Oct 05, 2018 / Murrelets, Protecting Wildlands, Restoring Wildlife, State Trust Lands

Wildlife protections and healthy rural communities can coexist.


Marbled murrelets, small, plump fast-flying seabirds that nest in old forests along coastal areas, are declining rapidly. Unlike other seabirds, they raise their young on the wide, mossy branches of old trees, flying up to 55 miles daily to forage in nearshore marine areas. If their nesting habitat is not protected in our public forests, they may soon disappear from Washington state. This is an avoidable tragedy.

Marbled murrelet: Photo Rick Bowers / Audubon

Scientists determined that marbled murrelets were threatened with extinction in Washington in 1993 after industrial logging had removed and fragmented much of their old-growth forest habitat. This prompted the protection of their habitat on federal lands, but logging continued on state and private lands, where 30 percent of the remaining murrelet habitat has since been cut down.

Murrelet populations in Washington have dropped 44 percent in the last 15 years and are now considered endangered, perilously close to statewide extinction.

We now have a chance to turn things around. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are preparing a Long-Term Conservation Strategy for the Marbled Murrelet under the state’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). The HCP, approved 21 years ago, provides regulatory certainty to DNR’s trust beneficiaries and the timber industry by defining the specific strategies and practices that ensure fish and wildlife conservation while allowing logging to proceed elsewhere. But there was a catch for murrelets: they had to wait because the HCP’s initial murrelet strategy was just a temporary plan. The day has now arrived to finally decide the future for murrelets in Washington.

Our state’s DNR lands are vital for murrelet recovery. Their relatively close proximity to marine areas provides a shorter and less risky commute between nesting and foraging areas. State forests are also typically more productive than ones at higher elevation further inland in national forests and national parks, growing more rapidly into the habitat murrelets need. Most importantly, scientists emphasize that protecting existing habitat in the near-term is essential to keep murrelets on the landscape, at least until degraded habitat on federal lands recovers.

Marbled murrelets depend on old forests for their nests. Protecting murrelets benefits forests, fish and many other species. Photo: USFWS

While the Revised Draft Conservation Strategy proposed by DNR considers eight options, only two are projected to allow for murrelet populations to increase over time. All of the others are expected to reduce murrelet numbers on state lands, which will further imperil their survival in Washington. To recover these special birds, DNR must protect all murrelet nesting habitat, prevent habitat fragmentation, and conduct restoration forestry to improve degraded areas and generate revenue.

It won’t be easy. The forests that murrelets need for survival are also looked at as logs for mills, jobs in the woods and income to rural counties and coastal communities. For example, rural counties in southwest Washington depend on revenue from the proceeds of logging on DNR lands for a significant portion of their budgets, funding basic services such as roads, hospitals and libraries. This reliance on the same remaining patches of older forest that murrelets need can set counties and timber mills up against conservationists and the general public, who have a strong interest in wildlife and wildlands protection.

Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has convened a Solutions Table on Marbled Murrelets to break these old patterns and find creative ways to meet the habitat needs of the murrelet, the income needs of rural counties, and the employment needs of timber mills and other economic sectors in these communities.

Murrelets depend on large old trees for nesting like these in Olympic National Park, laying their eggs on wide, moss-covered branches. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Loggers versus endangered birds is a false choice. We believe Washington can do better. Wildlife protections and healthy rural communities can coexist.

We are actively participating in the Solutions Table, contributing fresh ideas backed with murrelet biology and ecological economics expertise. We are also sharing lessons we have learned from working collaboratively with rural communities on wolf recovery and through the Wolf Advisory Group.

While the Solutions Table is working, we are actively promoting the most scientifically sound alternative for DNR’s Long Term Conservation Strategy for murrelets, and one that meets the intent of the Endangered Species Act.

The state is now accepting public comments through November 6, and several public meetings are coming up later this month. Keep an eye out for the suggested comments and a simple form to take action we’ll be sharing soon. Until then, check out our webpage for more information on these amazing—and threatened—seabirds, or visit DNR and USFWS’s story map.

Healthy forests go hand-in-hand with healthy, prosperous communities and abundant wildlife. Since 1989, our Forest Field Program has used science and collaboration to promote landscape-scale restoration of Washington’s forests and watersheds.