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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 13:20 EDT

Federal Proposal Would Trim Land Reserved for Threatened Bird

July 31, 2008

By Winston Ross, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.

Jul. 30–FLORENCE — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Tuesday proposed reducing the critical habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet by more than 254,000 acres in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, including nearly 63,000 acres in Lane and Douglas counties.

The agency reported in a press release that the areas proposed for removal aren’t essential for the bird’s conservation. In one area encompassing 191,000 acres in Northern California and Southern Oregon, surveys show that murrelets are unlikely to be using the area. The land in Lane and Douglas counties is more than 35 miles from the ocean.

The move drew criticism from conservationists, but with less virulence than some past threats to the seabird that would have had much bigger effects.

The murrelet occupies about 3.9 million acres of federally owned old growth forest. In 2002, timber industry representatives sued the government to force a review of the birds’ habitat, which led to a proposal two years ago to lift protections on 95 percent of that land, said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for the nonprofit conservation group EarthJustice. “Critical habitat” means geographic areas that offer features — such as the presence of big, leafy old growth trees — that help conserve a threatened species.

And in 2007, the American Forest Resources Council sued to have the bird taken off the Endangered Species List altogether. Tuesday’s proposal, in retrospect, isn’t nearly as alarming, Boyles said.

“It’s not an enormous amount of habitat: 254,000 acres of 3.9 million,” she said. “But I’m worried about anything that’s talking about removing habitat protections from a species that’s slipping away so quickly, given that there’s no compelling reason for this decision to be made right now.”

Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration director for the nonprofit Oregon Wild, said the purpose of critical habitat is to allow a species to recover by protecting areas where it may migrate.

“They say this habitat is currently not occupied by murrelets,” Heiken said. “But the whole point of recovery is to identify those areas that could support the species, so population can move into that habitat. It takes 200 years to grow these trees.”

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