BLOG: Legal Interns Set Sights on the Murrelet

By Elie Steinberg & Marty Farrell, 2021 Summer Legal Interns

Marbled murrelet habitat range (map from Cornell University Lab of Ornithology).

In a time where billionaires set their sights toward the stars (or rather, just outside of earth’s atmosphere), we set our sights closer to home, towards the mossy branches of Oregon’s coastal mature and old-growth forests. On the branches of these forests, the marbled murrelet, a small, imperiled seabird, lays its single, green egg. The murrelet spends most of its life at sea, occupying a fragmented, coastal habitat that extends from Northern California to Southern Alaska. The small bird travels up to 50 miles inland to nest in the canopy of mature trees. Due to the murrelets’ low fecundity — meaning, the inability to produce an abundance of offspring — and narrow nesting preference, their survival heavily depends on the health and abundance of mature coastal forests. Unfortunately, these same forests are actively targeted for logging in Oregon, contributing significantly to the fragmentation of murrelet habitat.

In addition to the grave and imminent threat that the murrelet faces from habitat fragmentation, the seabird’s existence is also threatened by climate change. To illustrate, the 2021 Marbled Murrelet Status Review stated that just one environmental disaster could single-handedly eliminate the entire murrelet population in Oregon. Further, murrelets on the southern Oregon coast face an 80% risk of extinction by 2060, and murrelets on the central/northern Oregon coast face an 80% risk of extinction by 2100.

Marbled murrelet chick in its nest (photo by Aaron Allred, 2016).

To protect the marbled murrelet from extinction, environmental groups petitioned the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2016 to follow California and Washington’s lead and “up-list” the murrelet from “threatened” to “endangered” under the state Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, this fight developed into a tumultuous, five-year saga, involving sudden reversals and delays.

As Summer legal interns at Cascadia Wildlands, we jumped at the opportunity to join the fight and work with a team of lawyers, scientists, and community members to advocate for the murrelet’s up-listing. We dove deep into studies, past litigation, and records, gaining a thorough understanding of the marbled murrelet, the challenges it faces, and the status reviews conducted by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission over the past few years. Then, with the guidance and support of our team, we prepared testimony for the ODFW Commission meeting, where the vote regarding the seabird’s up-listing would take place.

On July 9th, along with many fellow advocates, and in the face of logging industry opposition, we presented our testimony to the commission, highlighting the threats to habitat fragmentation from logging and the precarity of the murrelet’s existence in a changing climate. We urged the commission to protect the marbled murrelet. The time to act was now.

After a full day of presentations, testimony, and advocacy from both sides, the commission delivered a vote to up-list the murrelet from “threatened” to “endangered”. While delivering the vote, Commissioner Khalil stated that we often lack the forward-thinking to make conservation efforts before it is too late. This time, we acted before it was too late.

Elie Steinberg
Lewis & Clark Law School 
J.D Candidate 2022

Marty Farrell
University of Oregon School of Law
J.D. Candidate 2023