Conservation

The Surprising Place Marbled Murrelets Nest—And How It Could Doom Them

An age-old fight between conservationists and loggers pins this seabird in the middle.

The Marbled Murrelet is not, by any stretch, a bombshell bird. Its plump, football-shaped figure and homely plumage means it’s usually overshadowed by its more colorful cousins—puffins and auklets. But their nesting habits are nothing short of remarkable: Despite their seaside lifestyle, Marbled Murrelets travel up to fifty miles inland to nest hundreds of feet in the air in old growth forests. Rather than building traditional nests, they hunker into the moss-covered branches of centuries-old trees and lay a single egg, relying on the girth of ancient tree limbs to keep the egg stable. The wide branches of Douglas firs and western hemlocks are perfect for the murrelets’ stout little bodies to brood upon. Unfortunately, it’s this same breadth that makes old growth forests ideal for logging—a practice that has devastated Marbled Murrelet habitat and cut some populations in half over the past 15 years.

Ben Goldfarb chronicles the plight and fight of Marbled Murrelets in a recent feature for High Country News:

Not only does logging deprive murrelets of nesting sites, it also fragments their habitat, allowing opportunistic ravens and jays to penetrate forests and devour eggs. Researchers find the densest populations near blocks of unbroken old growth. While murrelets dwelling near Olympic National Park have fared relatively well, they’ve suffered in areas lacking federal land, like southwest Washington. Such gaps, fear scientists, could divide a population that has traditionally stretched from Northern California to Southeast Alaska. “That could have deleterious effects over the long run if it creates genetic isolation,” warns Martin Raphael, research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station.

If this threat sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Conservationists have spent years fighting to protect these same old growth forests in an attempt to save the threatened Northern Spotted Owl. While some of those efforts paid off for Marbled Murrelets, both bird populations have continued to shrink over the last decade. Now, the pudgy seabirds are taking center stage in the fight to protect their critical nesting habitat along the West Coast.

As Goldfarb writes:

After years of delay, the Washington Department of Natural Resources is on the verge of enacting a long-term conservation approach aimed at boosting the state’s murrelets. The strategy, intended to protect existing habitat and regenerate new forest cover over the next 50 years, ranks among the most consequential decisions for Northwest old growth since the Forest Plan. A quarter-century after the owl wars, the fate of hundreds of thousands of timber acres once again rests on an obscure bird.

For more about the balancing act taking place between logging communities and the conservation world to save Marbled Murrelets, check out the rest of Goldfarb’s article here.



 

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