The Marbled Murrelet and the Perils of Selective Science

In an age when we are constantly bombarded by information from multiple sources all the time, it is very difficult to determine what is objective information and what’s not. However, the hope is that institutions and agencies responsible for making important decisions and tough choices can maintain the integrity of their decisions by basing them on credible scientific information and evidence. Data and science should inform decision makers, but we have witnessed, all too often, how special interests and politics have turned this process on its head — cherry-picking scientific information to back predetermined conclusions. In this rigged process, science and its reputation suffer. The current state of marbled murrelet conservation in Oregon is a good example of this problem — the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission recently reversed a decision (supported by the public and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) staff) to uplist the marbled murrelet from “threatened” to “endangered” on the state list. This reversal was based on selective science to favor certain interest groups.

The marbled murrelet is an elusive little sea-bird from the auk family. Its gray, white, and black marbling patterns on the back lends to its name; however, it molts into a brown plumage during breeding season. It feeds on krill and other small prey at sea. Very little is known about this fast-flying bird since it was first reported on the West Coast in 1974 but the science is clear that both its land and sea habitats are facing serious threats from degradation, fragmentation (in case of forests), and climate change impacts on habitat quality and food availability. Oregon State University is leading a long-term research project to understand this elusive bird’s niche needs. Although the research is only in its third year, it has shed some important light on the migratory patterns, feeding habits, and habitat uses of the bird. The species has been federally listed as “threatened” since 1992 and is also listed as “threatened” on the state Endangered Species Acts (ESA) in Oregon, California, and Washington.

So, what makes this solitary, secretive, dove-sized bird so controversial? The answer lies in its habitat and habitat use. It is one of those rare seabird species that spends most of its life at sea, except when it is time to nest. Unlike most sea birds that nest close to coast, the female murrelet has a unique need: she nests on large, old-growth trees in the Pacific coast forests. This makes the marbled murrelet a bird of the sea and land. The first nest in Oregon was documented in 1990, and since then 78 nests have been found (of which only 30 were active at the time they were found). Protecting this species, therefore, will inevitably mean changes in forest management practices. Researchers are still in the process of determining what those changes would look like, nevertheless, the mere mention of forest management in a state where timber is a big part of the economy makes many people nervous.

2018 has been a year of highs and lows for the murrelet. Wildlife biologists and ecologists along the Pacific coast have been working hard to determine the species’ status and threats to its habitat, and they are concerned with what they have found so far — the population is in a rapid decline. ODFW produced a draft status review after compiling information from several research projects in the Pacific Northwest region, and the review reported high probability of extinction, continued habitat loss, and low juvenile to adult ratio, all of which is indicative of a species that is in crisis. Backed by the scientific evidence, Defenders, along with our partner organizations in Oregon, rallied to uplist the species based on the ODFW review as well as other research and in February 2018, the ODFW Commission agreed to uplist the status of marbled murrelet to “endangered” under the Oregon Endangered Species Act. This change in the status triggered an immediate adoption of mandatory survival guidelines while the agency put together a species recovery plan.

All was going well for the murrelet until the next ODFW Commission met again in June 2018 where, in an unprecedented political move, the Commission decided to retract their February decision and not uplist marbled murrelet in Oregon. This decision was based on a letter from one stakeholder group citing incomplete research with limited data points and irregular time intervals of data collection in Oregon. Data in the survey zones in Oregon was collected only every other year. Scientists filled in the gaps by interpolating data collected from other years, and the resulting estimates had a strong impact on the overall population trend. Even the authors of the research acknowledged that it was insufficient evidence on the population trend of the species. Yet, that didn’t matter to the Commission and using one ongoing research effort against many peer-reviewed, academic studies, they did not uplist marbled murrelet. Such selective use and misuse of data and information erodes the general public’s faith in scientific findings and the value of public process, but unfortunately, it is neither uncommon in today’s political landscape nor is it limited to wildlife conservation alone.

Now the marbled murrelet’s future in Oregon is in jeopardy again. The ODFW Commission is meeting in August 2018 to discuss and adopt the marbled murrelet survival guidelines, but if they do not make the guidelines mandatory and enforceable, then it will end up being another piece of regulation on paper with no implication on the ground. As someone who has spent considerable time in research and is now trying to bridge the gap between research and policy, such steps make it hard to work collaboratively.

I hope that the Commission does right by the species, but if 2018 is indicative of anything, it is that science alone cannot move the needle for the marbled murrelet in Oregon. We have to ensure that selective science does not dilute the process and that the ODFW Commission allows for a fair public process that represents all Oregonians and our interest in preserving our wildlife heritage. Public opinion can go a long way in influencing the Commission’s decision and Defenders issued an action alert to ensure that the public’s voice is heard. Science has already spoken but the Commission decided not to listen to it. So now it is time to hear from the people who care about their native wildlife. Please take a moment to read and sign the letter in our action alert — the fate of the marbled murrelet now depends on your voice.

And on Friday, August 3, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will be hosting a public meeting — if you are in Salem, OR please consider joining us.

To stay updated about this program and our other wildlife campaigns, please consider following the Defenders Northwest Program on Facebook.

Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store