When the marbled murrelet was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1992, so little was known about the elusive sea bird that the state postponed finalizing its long-term habitat conservation plan, opting instead for interim strategies until more scientific research could inform the best strategies.
Now the Washington State Board of Natural Resources is completing that work. It’s considering six alternatives for how to manage forests on state trust lands to grow more habitat.
The robin-sized birds nest high up on wide branches in old growth trees, as far as 50 miles from the coast where they feed. They lay their eggs in divots on mossy platform areas, rather than actually building any nests.
The board is tasked with figuring out how to manage forests on state trust lands so that they provide more of this kind of habitat for marbled murrelets. They meet this week in Olympia to work on finalizing the strategy for the next 50 years.
Kyle Blum with the state Department of Natural Resources says the board is evaluating six management options. They’re looking at different ways to grow more trees with the mossy, flat limbs the murrelets need. Ways to do this include thinning out stands when they’re younger.
“That can give certain trees the space, the light and moisture that they would need to grow bigger faster and hopefully accelerate the development of those limbs that are so critical for murrelet nesting,” Blum said.
This kind of active management could also provide some of the revenue from logging that the trust lands are supposed to generate for schools.
But some conservation groups say the murrelets need more of a buffer from human activity and predators. And they say high quality habitat for murrelets has declined by more than 30 percent on state and private lands in recent years, almost entirely due to logging.
Shawn Cantrell, Northwest director of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife, says Washington’s forests will be critical as the state considers its contribution to the birds’ recovery.
“They’ve got this complex life cycle where they spend part of it out in the ocean and part of it inland in the forests. And they need both and there’s trouble with both,” Cantrell said. “But the dominant cause of their decline is and the biggest threat to their survival and recovery is the loss of nesting habitat. And so that’s why the state long-term conservation strategy is going to be so key for murrelets here in Washington.”
In Southwest Washington in particular, Cantrell says the state is the dominant land owner of murrelet habitat.
An environmental impact statement on DNR’s habitat conservation plan is due out this fall.