Murrelet: More Information

Marbled murrelet chick (photo by Peter Halasz).

The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) is a small sea bird that spends most of its time at sea feeding on fish but nests inland in older forests. Murrelets do not build stick nests but rely on large tree branches with thick moss in which to lay their egg. Nesting habitat consists of large core areas of older forests that provide interior habitat (i.e., habitat with low amounts of edge habitat), reduced habitat fragmentation, and close proximity to the ocean.

Murrelets do not nest every year. When marbled murrelet nesting occurs it takes place between mid-April and September. The birds have high site fidelity, returning to the same tree or stand to nest. The female lays one egg and the male and female incubate the egg in shifts while the other bird flies to the ocean to feed. They switch shifts at dawn or dusk. Predominately due to the risk of predation, marbled murrelets tend to be very secretive when entering and leaving their nest sites making it difficult to detect the birds while nesting.

The primary reason marbled murrelets are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is because of the extensive logging of mature and old-growth forest over the past 150 years. Extensive logging has resulted in the fragmentation of murrelet nesting habitat, which affects population viability and size, and can lead to displacement, fewer nesting attempts, failure to breed, reduced fecundity, reduced nest abundance, lower nest success, increased predation and parasitism rates, crowding in remaining patches, and reductions in adult survival. Additionally, habitat loss can lead to the increased risk of predation from corvids, like jays and ravens, which is a significant threat to murrelet populations. Significant murrelet nesting failure is due to predation from corvids who can fly into the edges of older forests. Murrelets need large interior forests to avoid nest predation.

Current government research on marbled murrelets in the Pacific Northwest shows that populations are declining at approximately 4% per year.

The Elliott, Clatsop, and Tillamook State Forests

The Elliott State Forest is approximately 93,000 acres and is located in the Coos District, directly south of the Umpqua River near the Pacific Ocean in Coos and Douglas Counties. Much of the Elliott is “Common School Fund Land,” and is under the management authority of the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) and the State Land Board (SLB). Timber receipts from the Elliott pay the State’s overhead expenses to manage the forest. The remainder is put into the Common School Fund, where two draws are made each year and distributed to K-12 schools across the state.

The DSL and SLB have an agreement with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Oregon Board of Forestry (BOF) that allows ODF and the BOF to plan and authorize logging activities and annual operating plans in the Elliott State Forest. Approximately 50% of the Elliott State Forest has never been logged. The portions of the Elliott that have not already been logged are typically 120 to 140 years old though there are some remnant patches of forest that are much older. Up until this year, the ODF planned, and the BOF, DSL, and SLB approved, about 500 acres of clearcutting each year. This year, the ODF increased its average to 780 acres, and could clearcut up to 1,000 acres in the Elliott State Forest each year. This clearcutting occurs most often in older forest stands that have never before been logged, including in occupied and suitable marbled murrelet habitat.

The Elliott State Forest is so important to marbled murrelets, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended it for “critical habitat” after the murrelet was protected under the ESA in 1992.

The Clatsop and Tillamook State Forests are comprised of the Astoria, Tillamook, and Forest Grove Districts of Oregon’s northern coast. The ODF and BOF have primary authority over management of most of these forests, although approximately two percent of the Clatsop is Common School Fund lands that are managed by DSL and SLB. These forests are managed under Oregon’s Northwest Forests Management Plan.

The Clatsop State Forest consists of 154,000 acres within the Astoria District, and was significantly logged while in private ownership in the early 1900s. The Tillamook State Forest is approximately 364,000 acres, and was largely burned by wildfires and subsequently logged in the early-and mid-1900s. The Tillamook and Forest Grove Districts manage the Tillamook State Forest. Both the Tillamook and Clatsop are managed under the Northwest Forest Management Plan, adopted in 2001, and revised in 2010.

Oregon’s decisions to increase logging on the Elliott, Clatsop and Tillamook

At the end of 2011, ODF, BOF, DSL, and SLB approved a new forest management plan for the Elliott that significantly increases the amount of logging that will be allowed on the forest. Under the new forest management plan, logging on the Elliott will increase from approximately 25 million board feet to 40 million board feet cut per year, a nearly 40% increase. In order for the new volume targets to be met, timber sales will have to be planned in older forests in the northwestern portion of the Elliott that was previously reserved under the Elliott’s 1994 forest plan.

For the past 10 years, the state of Oregon pursued a multi-species Habitat Conservation Plan for the Elliott, which would have insulated the agency from endangered species “take” under the Endangered Species Act. Because the state’s proposed HCP did not protect endangered species adequately, it could not get approval from the federal agencies in charge of recovering endangered species. The state therefore abandoned that effort and is now operating under a “take avoidance” approach to managing endangered species.

For management on the Clatsop and Tillamook state forests, the Board of Forestry adopted revisions to the Northwest Forests Management Plan in 2010, which lowered the goals for older forests from 40-60 percent of the landscape, down to 30-50 percent. It directed ODF to increase revenues generated by logging from the northwest state forests by five to fifteen percent within the next decade. The revised plan also removes references to a much-discussed Habitat Conservation Plan for the forests. Like the Elliott, ODF worked on a draft Habitat Conservation Plan for the northwest forests but never finalized the plan. It is anticipated that a twenty percent increase in logging on both the Clatsop and Tillamook forests will occur.

Details on the State’s management of the forests that is leading to take

The notice letter explains that the State is causing “take” of marbled murrelets by authorizing logging of occupied nesting sites and by fragmenting marbled murrelet habitat.

Specifically, they believe the State is:

(1) authorizing logging within occupied areas specifically reserved for marbled murrelets called marbled murrelet management areas (MMMAs);
(2) creating MMMAs that fail to include all the contiguous occupied habitat;
(3) failing to designate MMMAs where occupied nesting behavior has been documented;
(4) fragmenting marbled murrelet habitat by creating MMMAs that are too small or irregularly shaped to provide the habitat necessary for protected murrelet nests; and
(5) fragmenting occupied and suitable habitat on state forest lands to such a degree as to cause death, displacement, fewer nesting attempts, failure to breed, reduced fecundity, reduced nest abundance, lower nest success, increased predation and parasitism rates, crowding in remaining patches, and reductions in adult survival.

This take is also occurring as a direct result of the State’s recent decisions to increase logging on the Elliott, Tillamook, and Clatsop state forests and its decisions to approve a new management plan for the Elliott, to amend the management plan for the northwest forests, to update or revise the implementation plans for the relevant districts, and to write new annual operating plans.