November 14, 2018

Marbled Murrelets

By James Beers

I recently received the following email request and attached paper on Marbled Murrelets, a seabird that occurs along the NW US coast Northward to the Alaskan Peninsula and the Eastern edge of the Aleutian Islands.

Marbled Murrelets are neither migratory nor colonial nesters but generally remain resident in the coastal waters frequented by their parents.  Their nesting habits remained a mystery for over a century and what little is known about that reveals a bird that nests on the ground or in tree tops far inland and on bare rocks near the coast.  In many localities they are the most abundant seabird.  Despite the paucity of such information or of comparable reliable counts over a vast water area of solitary birds or nesting birds that disappear periodically annually for all practical purposes and while frequenting the waters of their parents came and go over large water spaces – the Marbled Murrelet is Federally listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in Washington, Oregon and California, and State-listed as endangered in California and as threatened in Oregon and Washington.

Why, you might be asking yourself if you live in Arizona, Minnesota or South Carolina should I be concerned about this bird?  The answer is that this small bird about which little is known can be, and is, claimed to be in trees (that cannot then be cut over vast swaths) in woodlands far from the coasts but all over a vast area (how do you deny or disprove a government declaration that your property or the government holding nearby is said to be “important” to this bird?)  How can you question the “trend” in this bird’s population when there is no definitive data?  How can you show the government has invented or expanded questionable data (or no data)?  What can a fair person divine from actual historical data about what certain lands were like before Columbus and thereby get a notion of this bird’s historic status and abundance as required by the ESA?

In other words, the Marbled Murrelet is a quintessential example of the overreach of the ESA and the misuse of wildlife “science” for hidden agendas and significant societal changes far beyond a discussion of a fascinating seabird that most folks living near or vacationing near Marbled Murrelet habitat neither see nor look for.  It is not ironic, but a fact, that the less that is known about any species the more power the government can exert and the less power the individual or community has in the process they must endure, and the broader the claimed implications of and need for government intervention will be.

The following consists of three (short) parts:

  1. Dr. Zybach’s email to me about his paper.
  2. The paper – an attachment you can open.
  3. My response to Dr. Zybach.

 

  1. Dr Zybach’s email

Jim:

I am very curious about what you think of the attached article draft. Supposed to be published in early October, but please feel free to share with your readers or others you feel may have an opinion on this.

Keep up the good work!

Bob Zybach

  1. The paper– [follows below]

  1. 3.My response

Bob,

While living in the middle Aleutians for almost two years (1965-’66) as a Naval Courier Officer with little supervision I was fascinated with many things, not least of which was walking beaches and climbing rocky outcropping looking at and learning about seabirds like puffins, murres, guillemots and murrelets, not to say killer whales, seals, etc.  I remember looking for and finding Ancient’ and Kittlitzes’ Murrelets while looking for but never finding Marbled Murrelets.

In my readings in those days I was impressed by the nesting mystery about Marbled Murrelets.  It reminded me as an old duck hunter of how up to the early 1900’s the nesting grounds of Black Brant was a mystery of the “Far North”.  Years later I was told by a jokester that 1500 years ago the nesting grounds of the Barnacle goose (mainly Greenland) was unknown but the birds received the name “Barnacle” geese when they wintered in Ireland and Scotland from Catholic priests that assumed (or made up) that they actually arose from barnacles in the sea and only returned to land in the fall and winter.  I was then asked if I knew what was so significant about that name?  When I said, I didn’t know, he told me that, “since they arose from barnacles they were seafood and therefore could be eaten on Friday”.

When I first saw this business about “Listing” Marbled Murrelets I smelled a Rattus norvegicus.  The Marbled Murrelets are not colonial nesters and they were spread out in real estate coveted by the federal bureaucrats and their environmentalist gangs.  Reading your paper and noting the lack of or inability to establish even any tree-nesting preferences and then to make WAGS about populations or their trends; claiming to see a “trend” is specious and merely propaganda to say the least.  To read that in SE Alaska they nest on bare rocks is hilarious considering they also nest to the top of high conifers (and what in between?) and then establish population levels and trends based on the “word” of do-gooders with an agenda from eliminating private property (think spotted owls) to reducing all the land outside the cities into government collective management units (think planted GI government-issued wolves, grizzlies, buffalo, etc.) like the old Soviet Union.

I am grateful that you took the time and effort to stress the variety and history of plant communities supporting murrelet nesting from the “pristine”, “virgin”, “untouched” fantasies of native American burning, disturbance, and plant succession to European settlement logging and grazing down to the destruction of logging and ranches by modern environmentalists thus creating the catastrophic and immensely costly forest fires of today.  The more that appears in print, the greater the chance of brainwashed environmental munchkins questioning the apparent differences all around them between grazing/logging condemnation; eliminating hunting; introducing and protecting  large predators; the imaginary propaganda fantasies they are taught in school about “native ecosystems”; the “benign” nature of deadly, dangerous and destructive predators – and the freedoms, prosperity and benefits of an environment composed of wildlife to strong families harmonized by renewable natural resource management by the people that live there.  These government bureaucrats and their cronies are the exact opposite of those mythical Catholic priests of long ago who contrived a “scientific name” for a good purpose – to allow poor families to enjoy some meat while it was available.  They name, rename (think Killer Whale to Orca or Old Squaw to “long-tailed duck) and invent “science” to take away the rights and freedoms of those same people for no more than their own benefit.

“Listing” these “Australian bumble bees” (an old name for Marbled Murrelets I remember once reading) is an even worse example of the perfidy of selective and wish-based “science” used to manipulate the nation and selectively eliminate our culture, traditions and rights for much broader hidden agendas than I imagined all those years ago while toiling away in the “vineyards of Washington” in ways I have come to understand and regret as I age.  Thanks for making the effort to describe it so well and so succinctly…

Jim Beers

24 September 2018 

If you found this worthwhile, please share it with others.  Thanks.

Jim Beers is a retired US Fish & Wildlife Service Wildlife Biologist, Special Agent, Refuge Manager, Wetlands Biologist, and Congressional Fellow. He was stationed in North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York City, and Washington DC.  He also served as a US Navy Line Officer in the western Pacific and on Adak, Alaska in the Aleutian Islands.  He has worked for the Utah Fish & Game, Minneapolis Police Department, and as a Security Supervisor in Washington, DC.  He testified three times before Congress; twice regarding the theft by the US Fish & Wildlife Service of $45 to 60 Million from State fish and wildlife funds and once in opposition to expanding Federal Invasive Species authority.  He resides in Eagan, Minnesota with his wife of many decades.

Jim Beers is available to speak or for consulting.

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Oregon Coast Range Old-Growth: Part III. Marbled Murrelet Habitat

September 20, 2018 DRAFT Dr. Bob Zybach

Marbled murrelets are relatively small seabirds that can fly 60 or 90 miles an hour when traveling, but spend most of their time floating in the ocean and diving for small fish and shrimp. Their population extends from southern Alaska, where they lay their eggs on shoreline rocks, to Canada, Washington, Oregon, and California, where they have been documented nesting in the upper reaches of old-growth conifer trees.

These birds are important because they have had a profound impact on rural Oregon Coast Range forests, economics, infrastructure, wildfire risks, recreational opportunities, wildlife populations, and aesthetics during the past 25 years.

Marbled murrelets are in the auk family and very closely related to long-billed murrelets and to Kittlitz’s murrelets. In fact, until 1998 long-billed murrelets were considered to be the same species as their marbled cousins. Kittlitz’s murrelets tend to live in Alaska and Siberia and long-billed murrelets are found in Korea and Japan, although members of this species have also been recorded in the south and along the east coast in the US, and in Europe.

Murrelets are opportunistic nesters throughout their range, including rocks, bare ground near snowfields, shrublands, and forested areas of varying size, density, and age. They lay one egg at a time, typically within 30 miles of the ocean shore, and feed their young once or twice a day, usually a small fish at a time. Juveniles are strong enough to fly about four weeks after hatching, at which time they head directly to sea. There is no evidence that the birds use the same nest more than once.

It was estimated in 1992 by Steven Speich, a recognized expert in Pacific coast seabird biology, that less than one percent of all North American marbled murrelets nest in California; less than one percent in Oregon; and “perhaps” two percent in Washington; “compared to about 13% in British Columbia and 84% in Alaska.”

During that same year, on September 22, 1992, the marbled murrelet was declared a legally “threatened” species in Oregon, Washington, and California (but not Canada or Alaska) by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Clearcut logging on coastal

 Map 1. Oregon Coast Range Indian Tribes and Nations, ca. 1770. Common spellings, language classifications, and geographical boundaries are currently being updated and revised.

Table 1.  Oregon Coast Range languages, tribes, rivers, cities, and counties, 1770-1893. Tribe Language River City County North         Clowwewalla Chinookan Willamette Oregon City Clackamas Multnomah Chinookan Willamette Portland Multnomah Skilloot Chinookan Columbia Ranier Columbia Kathlamet Chinookan Columbia Knappa Clatsop Clatsop Chinookan Youngs Astoria Clatsop Klaskani Athapaskan Clatskanie Clatskanie Columbia  Nehalem Salish Nehalem Nehalem Tillamook East         Atfalati Kalapuyan Tualatin Tualatin Washington Yamel Kalapuyan Yamhill Yamhill Yamhill Luckiamute Kalapuyan Luckiamute Dallas Polk Chepenafa Kalapuyan Marys Corvallis Benton Chelamela Kalapuyan Long Tom Monroe Benton Calapooia Kalapuyan Willamette Eugene Lane West         Killamox Salish Tillamook Tillamook Tillamook Nestucca Salish Nestucca Pacific City Tillamook Nechesne Salish Salmon Rose Lodge Lincoln Siletz Salish Siletz Siletz Lincoln Yakona Yakonan Yaquina Newport Lincoln Alsi Yakonan Alsea Waldport Lincoln Siuslaw Yakonan Siuslaw Florence Lane South         Ayankeld Kalapuyan Umpqua Yoncalla Douglas Kelawatset Yakonan Umpqua Reedsport Douglas Hanis Kusan Coos Coos Bay Coos Miluk Kusan Coquille Bandon Coos Mishikwutmetunne Athapaskan Coquille Coquille Coos

Douglas fir forests was promoted as a principal cause of a claimed reduction in these populations despite any concrete evidence that it has, or can, cause such effects. And despite any baseline data to demonstrate that bird populations were actually being reduced: only some very suspect “assumptions” and questionable arithmetic.

In 2012 the Center for Biological Diversity, Portland Audubon Society, and Cacscadia Wildlands sued Oregon Department of Forestry officials regarding the “take” of marbled murrelet habitat on State of Oregon forestlands. The regional forest industry, the national carpenters’ union, and Douglas County essentially counter-sued, saying that the US Fish & Wildlife “science” behind the listing of the bird and its “critical habitat” was biased and inconclusive.

This latter suit was dismissed without a hearing in 2013; the former ended in a 2014 “sue and settle” decision in which the environmental organizations and their lawyers were given a significant amount of money and the State agreed to halt logging on 28 different locations in rural western Oregon.

In addition to lawyer fees and court-ordered payments, the principal costs associated with these rulings were the loss of hundreds or thousands of tax-paying blue-collar jobs in rural Clatsop, Tillamook, Lincoln, Coos, and Douglas Counties, and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in timber revenues to those counties and to the Oregon Common School Fund. There is no measurement as to whether these legal rulings have had any effect on marbled murrelet populations, but there is little reason or evidence to indicate they have.

A 2016 report by the US Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station concerning marbled murrelet population trends for the 1994-2013 study period showed an estimated population of 20,000 birds in 2013. That number represented an apparent decline of 4.6% in numbers for the State of Washington and no discernable change in Oregon and California populations for the 20-year period.

Background

I first heard of marbled murrelets in October, 1988, when I received a handwritten letter from an Oregon State University graduate student, Kim Nelson, who was finishing up her Master’s degree in “cavity nesting birds” and was also working under contract with the Siuslaw National Forest doing marbled murrelet surveys. She had heard that I knew a significant amount about Coast Range forest and fire history and asked if I could provide her with information in that regard. Which I did.

The information was apparently ignored. I provided Nelson with maps, eyewitness accounts, and photographic documentation showing the Siuslaw – in common with the remainder of the Coast Range – is a highly dynamic forest. It was created in 1908 in the foot print of 1849 and 1868 catastrophic wildfires (the “Yaquina Burn”) and had always had a history of floods, landslides, earthquakes, windstorms, and a significant human population that used fire and large wood products on a daily basis (see Map 1; Table 1; Figures 1-4).

Instead, in September 1991 Nelson wrote to Russell Peterson of the US Fish & Wildlife Service in support of listing the marbled murrelet as “threatened” in the State of Oregon because:

               Figure 1. Native People of the Oregon Coast Range, 1841-1885. Upper Left: Two “Salish women,” possibly Tillamooks, on a “trading trip”; Upper Right: Tattooed Chinook woman with a child in a “cradleboard” designed to flatten its head, drawn by George Catlin near Portland, Oregon, ca. 1861; Lower Left: Yakona Indians in Christian clothing and traditional headdresses and tattoos, Yaquina Bay, ca. 1877; Lower Right: Kalapuyan man near present-day Monroe, Oregon, drawn by Alfred Agate in 1841.

“Logging since the 1800’s has eliminated most of the mature and oldgrowth forests (suitable murrelet habitat) in western Oregon. Current estimates indicate a 60-90% decline in the forest types. Assuming that the murrelets were evenly distributed in the state in relationship to the distribution of suitable habitat, the population has been reduced 6090% and the species distribution is now limited to isolated areas along the Oregon Coast.”

The key phrase here, in addition to “suitable habitat,” is the statement, “assuming that the murrelets were evenly distributed . . .” Given the detailed maps and documentary evidence that had been provided to her, why and how had Nelson

               Figure 2. Precontact large-wood products. Upper Right: Traditional Kelawatset (“Quuiich”) cedar plank house photographed by an Army officer near mouth of Umpqua River in 1858; Upper Right: Drawing of a similar plank house near the same location, published by Harper’s Magazine, also in 1858; Lower Left: Large sea-going trade canoe found near mouth of the Salmon River in Lincoln County; Lower Right: Interior of typical Chinookan lodge along the Columbia River, drawn by Alfred Agate in 1841.

come up with this obvious deception? Where did this “assumption” come from?  Tying it to an equally fabricated Coast Range logging history (“60-90%” of the landscape, apparently) and a simplistic arithmetical equation – including an assumed and highly unlikely 1:1 correlation between her determination of “suitable habitat” and actual bird populations — has somehow become the basis of several “successful” anti-logging legal actions that have taken place in western Oregon ever since.

In 1992, leading up to the September listing of marbled murrelets as “threatened,” Nelson was lead author of a paper titled “The Marbled Murrelet in Oregon, 18991987,” in which only seven “potential [not “actual”] nesting areas” were identified in western Oregon, the small number apparently due to “current timber management practices”:

“Potential nesting areas were located in Douglas-fir (n = 6) and Sitka spruce (n = 1) forests greater than 100 years in age. The loss of mature and old-growth nesting habitat through current timber management practices must be considered a threat to populations of Marbled Murrelets in Oregon.”

Nelson’s 1991 letter concludes with warnings of a “potential extreme decline” in murrelet numbers if “all future plans for logging” on state, federal, and private lands weren’t immediately curtailed in favor of creating more “suitable habitat”:

“Listing the murrelet as endangered (or threatened) would ensure that all future plans for logging in suitable habitat (individual sales and cumulative impacts) will be scrutinized for impacts on murrelet populations . . . Timing is of the essence given the rates of habitat loss in western Oregon and the potential extreme declines in murrelet populations.”

Forest “Habitat” History

The relationship of Coast Range Indian burning practices to wildlife habitat -especially habitat for such food animals as birds, ungulates, rabbits, and squirrels -was first noted by Robert Haswell as he sailed along the southern Oregon Coast near Coos Bay in August, 1788:

“. . . this Countrey must be thickly inhabited by the many fiers we saw in the night and culloms of smoak we would see in the day time but I think they can derive but little of there subsistance from the sea but to compenciate for this the land was beautyfully diversified with forists and green veredent launs which must give shelter and forage to vast numbers of wild beasts”

During early historical time there were at least eight major and distinct languages spoken in the Oregon Coast Range and at least 26 distinct tribes. Map 1 shows the general location of these peoples, and Table 1 shows the locations in terms of modern political divisions and populations. Figures 1 and 2 depict a few of these individuals and their respective uses of large-wood products typically harvested from local forest environments. Rivers flowing from upland forests and ocean currents were also sources of large logs.

               Figure 3. Drawing of Toledo, Oregon, landscape, looking eastward toward Marys Peak, 1885.

Human families have lived in the historical range of marbled murrelets for more than 10,000 years.  The use of fire by these families for heating, cooking, hunting, recreation, vegetation management, and other purposes produced an environment dominated by fire-dependent and fire-tolerant plant and animal species. Identifiable patterns of these plants existed across most of the landscape at the time of white settlement. Accurate physical reconstructions of historical Coast Range vegetation patterns (“habitat”) require the presence of people and expert daily and seasonal uses of fire.

Based on documentary evidence, it can be shown that the landscape of the historical range of the marbled murrelet at the time of white occupation was primarily made of shifting patterns of even-aged stands of conifers –some young, some old — (mostly Douglas fir) bounded by prairies, ridgeline trails, oak savannahs, the Columbia River, and Pacific Ocean. Islands of even-aged conifers, groves of oak, meadows, ponds, balds, brakes, and berry patches further defined the environment, much of which was virtually free of underbrush, ladder fuels, coarse woody debris, snags, and other characteristics that became common to many post-1900 Pacific Northwest forests.

               Figure 4. Elkhorn Ranch, in heart of present-day Elliott State Forest, winter ca. 1894.   Warren Vaughn was a pioneer white settler along Tillamook Bay in the early 1850s, where he observed in the 1880s:

“At that time, there was not a bush or tree to be seen on all those hills, for the Indians kept it burned over every spring, but when the whites came, they stopped the fires for it destroyed the grass, and then the young spruces sprang up and grew as we now see them.”

In addition to considering the effects of thousands of people and their daily uses of fire and firewood over thousands of years, current marbled murrelet habitat has experienced some of the largest and most violent catastrophic wildfires in US history: the Yaquina (Figure 3), the Nestucca, the Coos (Figure 4), and the 6-Year Jinx Tillamook Fires of 1849, 1868, 1902, 1910, 1933, 1939, 1945, and 1951. These fires killed hundreds of thousands of acres of even-aged large, small, and old-growth Douglas fir at a time.

What effect did these vast – and sudden — “clearcuts” have on Oregon’s murrelet population? Compared to logging history? Did murrelets adapt to historical Indian burning practices, or did they migrate here after the burning was stopped?

Conclusions and Recommendations

Marbled murrelets live mostly in the ocean, have proven to be very adaptive nesters, and can fly extremely fast. “Trees die and birds fly” – to say that millions of acres of contiguous “old-growth” Douglas fir forestland is needed to “protect” these birds seems to defy both reason and common sense:

The “science” process that directly resulted in the US Fish and Wildlife Service declaring marbled murrelets as “threatened” was apparently biased against logging and active forest management from the outset. Likewise, efforts to locate nests were also biased toward “natural” old-growth conifer stands (“occupied sites were not always located in an unbiased manner”). This is not the “best” science.

Data used to promote the “critical decline” narrative regarding marbled murrelet populations was superficial, based on provably false assumptions, and dependent on questionable arithmetic to derive the “critically threatened” claims.

Native bird populations on the Oregon Coast Range must have adapted to constant disturbances by people and by occasional catastrophic forest fires and windstorms over time, or else they may have migrated to this area in recent centuries. Both possibilities should be considered.

Marbled murrelets do not seem to be threatened or endangered at this time. There is no real evidence that their populations are in “sharp decline” or that logging is/was responsible, even if they are. Rather, it appears the California, Washington, and Oregon murrelets are near the edge of their range, much as the lands in northern Canada and Alaska are sparsely populated by people. Conversely, most murrelets prefer Canada, Alaska, and Asia, where they have robust populations – rather than the “lower 48,” where they exist in apparently stable, much smaller, numbers.

In sum, if the federal government is going to continue to dictate how forests are managed in Oregon – and particularly in regard to select plant or animal species – it is important they begin with comprehensive historical information rather than inaccurate assumptions, bias, and deceptive math for planning purposes.

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