Groups file lawsuit to protect marbled murrelet in three Oregon state forests.

Cascadia Wildlands is among the plaintiffs alleging the state’s failure to protect a threatened bird

Three conservation groups, including Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, filed suit in federal court on Thursday, saying Oregon state government’s logging on state-owned forests in the Coast Range is illegally harming marbled murrelets, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Accelerated state-approved logging in the Tillamook, Clatsop and Elliott state forests is eliminating old stands of known murrelet nesting habitat, the groups said in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland.

The groups are asking a judge to halt the logging.

Targets of the suit, including Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state Board of Forestry, which sets logging policies on state lands, did not have an immediate response, said Dan Postrel, a spokesman for the Forestry Board.

Marbeled murrelets spend most of their life on the ocean, but fly inland to old growth stands in order to breed. They don’t make nests, but rather lay their eggs in indentations on big, mossy branches of old trees.

Over the years, the state has surveyed for murrelets and designated forest areas to be protected for them, but the state is now weakening that already-inadequate safeguard system, the lawsuit said.

Oregon recently abandoned its decadelong attempt to develop habitat conservation plans for the three forests that would have given it a federal permit for limited impacts on marbled murrelets in exchange for habitat protection measures designed to enhance the bird’s conservation, the lawsuit said.

Also, the state in the last couple of years has ramped up logging in the three state forests in order to increase revenue.

“The state of Oregon is playing fast and loose with the law and science in the way it is recklessly clearcutting our public rainforests,” said Josh Loughlin, campaign director for Cascadia Wildlands. “We’re calling on Gov. Kitzhaber to develop long-term, science-based plans for these state forests that will genuinely protect species teetering on the brink of extinction while allowing for a reasonable amount of logging.”

The Endangered Species Act bars actions that “take” threatened and endangered species. That’s broadly defined to include actions that kill or injure protected species, including destruction of habitat.

Murrelet numbers in Oregon, Washington and California have been declining steadily, dropping to about 18,000 in 2008, from 24,400 in 2002, the lawsuit said, citing a federal study.

The lawsuit alleges that the state doesn’t properly survey for murrelets before determining that logging can go ahead.

Also, the state in the past has designated numerous areas in the three forests as “marbeled murrelet management areas,” but it recently has begun allowing, or planning to allow, logging in those areas in all three forests, the groups said.

Plus, some of the marbeled murrelet management areas the state has created are too small to be of any value because the murrelet is secretive and reclusive in its breeding and needs substantial stands of old trees, the lawsuit said. For example, one murrelet management area the state created in Elliott State Forest is only 21 acres, and another is only 34 acres and “is shaped like an octopus,” the lawsuit said. Such stands provide little if any secluded habitat for the bird, the lawsuit said.

The federal government listed the murrelet as a threatened species in 1992. But since then, the state “has completely failed to implement the protections required under the act,” said Bob Sallinger of the Portland Audubon Society, one of the plaintiffs. “Our organizations have worked for years to move the state toward more responsible logging practices, but with murrelet populations plummeting and no forward progress at the Department of Forestry, we were left with no recourse but the courtroom.”

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown recently defended the state decision to increase logging on the Elliott, saying it will boost school revenues and generate local forestry jobs.

Brown, along with Kitzhaber and the Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler, voted in October to increase logging on state land. The three officials manage the state’s 153-year-old system of harvesting timber to help fund Oregon schools.