I just finished my undergraduate thesis, Marbled Murrelets: Mysteries & Management, on the political and economic challenges of preserving marbled murrelets. As a student at the
The marbled murrelet is a robin-sized seabird native to the
of the Pacific Coast United States and Canada. Its habit of feeding in the ocean but
nesting in old-growth forests makes it one of the most unique species in our
region. It also puts the species at great risk. Though about 220,000
individuals live in Alaska, their population has declined by as
much as 50% since the 1980s.
Marbled murrelet populations in
California, Oregon and Washington were listed as threatened (i.e., “likely
to become endangered in the foreseeable future”) on the Endangered Species Act
in 1992. They have been known to nest in old growth forests within Olympic
National Park, Olympic National Forest, and the San Juan Islands. Unfortunately, marbled murrelet
populations continue to fall 4-6% annually in our region. Although surveys in
the 1930s estimated their population to be in the hundreds of thousands south
of Canada, currently only 16,700 individuals
survive in California, Oregon and Washington.
The two most important reasons for marbled murrelet decline are habitat loss and increased predation. Both are results of human activity. Logging still destroys a significant amount of old growth forest each year, although it has been significantly curtailed since the 1980s. According to the Forest Service, more than 400,000 acres of old growth trees were logged in the past decade.
However, marbled murrelets have been declining faster than old growth, indicating that other factors also play a role. The most important of these is increased predation, especially by corvids (jays, crows, and ravens). While these birds do not usually venture into old growth, they will follow campers and hikers into these areas if they provide food. Once in old growth, they spot helpless murrelet chicks and eat them. Corvids also find chicks when murrelets nest near the edges of old growth, as might be created when the trees around an old growth stand are logged. Combined with habitat loss, predation makes it almost impossible for marbled murrelets to reproduce.
Marbled murrelets need to be protected in our area. Though some cite their relatively large population in Alaska as a reason to remove the marbled murrelet from the
ESA for its California to Washington range,
biologists have identified the unique ecological niche the bird occupies as an
important reason to work to preserve it. Additionally, there appear to be
several subspecies of marbled murrelet in our region. This indicates the marbled
murrelets in one area might not be able to recolonize an area they were forced
to abandon even if it again became healthy habitat because murrelets need
specific adaptations for each area. The population as a whole might not be able
to recover if genetic diversity was lost by regional extinctions.
Finally, we’ve only begun to understand the mysteries of the marbled murrelet; for example, humans only discovered its nest in 1974. To lose a creature we know so little about would be a tragedy. As Edward O. Wilson says, “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.”
Washington Wild’s efforts to protect old growth forests as wilderness also protect marbled murrelet’s habitat. Most of the marbled murrelets in our state are clustered around the Olympic Peninsula. As a founding member of the Wild Olympics Campaign, Washington Wild works with other organizations to protect low-elevation forest lands as Wilderness. Aside from offering world-class recreation opportunities and providing clean water, these forests are the most important to the continued survival of marbled murrelets in the state. In order to remain productive homes for marbled murrelets, these lands need to be permanently preserved in their natural state. To read more about the Wild Olympics Campaign and sign the petition, please click here. With your support, we can ensure marbled murrelets can call the Olympic Peninsula home for decades to come!
Wild’s membership assistant. She will be graduating from the Washington
with a Bachelors in Political Science and Economics next week. When not in the
office, you can find Cat studying for the LSAT, playing in the woods, or
drinking decaf lattes. University