Environmental groups have vowed to stop a plan by the Bush administration that would eliminate federal Endangered Species Act protections for a secretive seabird that nests in California redwoods.
Environmentalists in San Francisco, Garberville, Portland and Tucson said Tuesday that they will sue if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delists the marbled murrelet, a rare dove-size bird living in forests and oceans along the Pacific Coast.
Last week, the agency confirmed that by the end of the year, it will propose removing the threatened species status for the marbled murrelets living in California, Oregon and Washington.
The Bush administration is reviewing several other species for delisting, including the western snowy plover in the Bay Area.
The murrelets in those three states were listed as threatened in 1992 after scientists realized they were indeed a rare bird and their forest habitat was rapidly disappearing. Since then, the 8-inch murrelet has served as the key obstacle stopping Pacific Lumber Co. and other timber concerns from logging old-growth forests in Humboldt, Del Norte and Santa Cruz counties.
Scientists view the presence of nesting murrelets as a sign of a healthy coastal forest ecosystem.
"The murrelet is the absolute best indicator we have of the health of old-growth forests. If it's allowed to go extinct, you can just wave bye-bye to the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest,'' said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.
"It's so extraordinarily rare that there's probably less than one marbled murrelet for every spotted owl. There's no room for error or delay in protection.''
The move to change the bird's status surfaced when a trade group, the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore., filed a petition seeking review of the species.
Then, a year ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the California, Oregon and Washington murrelets weren't geographically isolated or biologically distinct from the Alaska and Canada murrelets.
By combining the populations -- an estimated 17,000 to 27,000 marbled murrelets in the three states plus the 860,000 in Alaska and the 55,000 to 78,000 in British Columbia -- the birds don't seem so rare anymore.
The policy decision last year came, in part, from Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson. He confirmed that Washington, D.C., officials had overruled the agency's Pacific Region biologists who viewed the three-state population as separate.
"Basically, it was a policy decision not to consider the marbled murrelet down here as a distinct population,'' said Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland.
At the time, Dave Allen, director of the Pacific Region, said a status review of the entire species would come first, followed by any delisting recommendation. In spite of that, the agency has moved ahead with delisting. The completion of the review by the agency is at least six months away.
Regardless of what Fish and Wildlife Service decides, the marbled murrelet would remain listed as an endangered species under California law. But the state law is somewhat weaker. The federal law protects against harassment or a significant disruption of normal behavioral patterns, said Esther Burkett, a murrelet researcher with the state Department of Fish and Game. That would include cutting down the nesting trees and surrounding habitat.
But the state law has been interpreted to only protect against actually harming or killing a bird, she said.
The marbled murrelet, with its soft "kir kir kir'' call, isn't the only species facing delisting.
In the past few years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to eliminate "distinct population segment'' status for the gray wolf and the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. The agency is also considering delisting the coastal western snowy plover on that basis.
"What we're seeing now is a strategy to employ this policy to either remove species from the list or prevent species from getting on the list,'' Suckling said. "And that is a very new strategy with the Bush administration.'' The option wasn't used in the Bill Clinton era, he said.
David Patte, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, responded to the criticism by saying that under the Clinton administration, the agency didn't undertake any five-year reviews of listed species either because of lack of funds or priority.
"We're starting to do that more, and it opens up
these questions,'' he said.