The Department of Interior tampered with and ultimately reversed the findings of government biologists regarding the threatened status of the marbled murrelet, a small seabird native to the Pacific Northwest. Internal documents show that pressure from the timber industry resulted in a 2004 decision which threatens federal protections for the imperiled murrelet and paves the way for increased logging in old-growth forests.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the marbled murrelet population of California, Oregon and Washington as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1992. Although still numerous in Canada and Alaska, the dove-sized birds were disappearing rapidly from their southern range as human development and logging encroached upon their coastal forest habitat. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the murrelet listing was especially unpopular with the Pacific Lumber Co., whose efforts to log northern California old-growth redwood forests would be blocked if the bird were protected under the ESA.1
An estimated 860,000 marbled murrelets live and breed in Alaska and another 55,000 to 78,000 in British Columbia. In contrast, only between 17,000 and 27,000 marbled murrelets remain in the three northwestern states.2 Even with ESA protection, this population has continued to shrink and fragment over the last ten years. The Audubon Society estimates a decline of between 4 and 7 percent per year.3
The FWS's Pacific Regional office initiated a five-year review of the threatened marbled murrelet's status in 2003 as a result of litigation from the timber industry.4 After reviewing the science on the bird, the Pacific office determined that the marbled murrelet of the Pacific Northwest was ecologically distinct from its northern cousins and therefore a valid Distinct Population Segment (DPS). The regional office's final report, submitted to FWS headquarters, recommended no change in the listing classification for the bird.5
Internal documents obtained by Earthjustice through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that high-level officials from the Department of Interior intended to manipulate the review before it was even officially announced.6 Notes from a November 2002 meeting indicate that administration officials decided early on that the timber industry would "get what they want." The meeting notes read, "We're willing to concede the on [sic] as many issues as we can, in order to accommodate their desire for increased timber harvest."7
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald also played a key role in obliging the timber industry by personally critiqued the underlying scientific report prepared by FWS biologists. MacDonald resigned from her high-ranking position at the Interior Department in April 20078 after a report by the Office of the Inspector General implicated her in systematically undermining the science in multiple Endangered Species Act decisions through direct edits and authoritative decrees.9
The FOIA documents show that MacDonald, an engineer by training, imposed her own inexpert interpretations of the data upon the review process.10 MacDonald argued that the evidence demonstrating the discrete nature of the southern population of marbled murrelets was flawed and characterized the entire report as a "pattern of mistakes."11 She furthermore insisted on the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed, industry-funded studies in the review process.12
Despite these attacks on the underlying science, the Pacific regional office maintained its stance that the marbled murrelet deserved ESA protection. Just days before the final findings of the five-year review were to be released, the regional office submitted a press release to DOI officials in Washington for approval. The draft restated the regional biologists' conclusion that no change should be made in the listing classification for marbled murrelet populations in California, Oregon, and Washington, as "the loss of these populations would likely reduce the evolutionary potential and long-term viability of the species' entire range from Alaska to Canada."13
That statement was never released to the public. Instead, six days later on September 31, 2004, FWS headquarters replaced this press release with their own version, which reversed the findings of the regional biologists and declared the marbled murrelets in these three states did not qualify as a DPS.14 FWS headquarters claimed marbled murrelet populations were contiguous across the Canadian border and hence the three-state population did not satisfy the requirement of "discreteness" necessary for DPS status.15
The administration announced plans to begin the process of delisting the bird from the ESA in October 2005,16 even though scientists and environmental advocates argued that delisting goes against the best available scientific information about this vulnerable bird population. As Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice explained, by grouping together all populations the Interior Department is "ignoring biology and playing games with the legal standard to say this is no longer a population segment we can list."17
An official proposal to delist the species never appeared, but in 2006 FWS proposed to reduce the acreage of marbled murrelet critical habitat protected under the ESA by nearly 95% as part of a "settlement" reached with the American Forest Resource Council and the Western Council of Industrial Workers.18 The agency decided to withdraw this proposal in March 2008 due to a pending plan by the Bureau of Land Management to alter coastal forest management, but given the strong economic incentives to increase logging in the region it seems likely the question of critical habitat will soon rise again.19
To see the current status of protection for the marbled murrelet, visit its page on the FWS website.
1. Jane Kay, "Suit Could Follow Any Delisting of Marbled Murrelet," San Francisco Chronicle, 26 October 2005, accessed 27 February 2006.
3. See the web entry for the Marbled Murrelet on the Audubon Society's website. Accessed 2 February 2008.3.
4. Federal Register. Vol. 68, No. 76, p. 19569-19571. 21 April 2003. Accessed 7 March 2008.
5. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Regional Office. "Five-year Review of Marbled Murrelet Completed" [Draft]. 31 August 2004. p. 32 of the Earthjustice FOIA documents. Accessed 27 February 2008.
6. Earthjustice. "Murrelet MacDonald FOIA full documents." Accessed 27 February 2008.
7. "Mary Klee's Notes of 2:00 Conference Call in Ann Klee's Office." 14 November 2002. Note that the "plaintiffs" referred to in the notes are the American Forestry Resource Council, a lobbying group representing the timber industry. Available in Earthjustice FOIA documents, p. 1.
8. Barringer, Felicity. "Interior official steps down after report of rules violation." The New York Times. May 2, 2007. Accessed 27 March 2008.
9. Department of the Interior, Office of the Inspector General. Report of investigation: Julie MacDonald, deputy assistance secretary – Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. March 2007. Accessed on 7 March 2008.
10. See for instance in the Earthjustice FOIA documents the email dated March 19, 2004 from Julie MacDonald to Theresa Roberts from FWS, p. 19. In the email, MacDonald writes, "I am most concerned about our apparent misrepresentation of these birds in California in the listing document…it appears that the murrelet, while present, only showed up in any real numbers periodically." Also, from April 28, MacDonald wrote, "We have some very serious reservations about the product we received from EDAW [the authors of the scientific review]."
11. One FWS employee said in an email, "She [Julie MacDonald] commented that her review indicates continued use/overuse of "bad" data…i.e., a pattern of mistakes (her words)." Email from Barry Mulder titled "Julie M request and comments-3/22." 22 March 2004. EJ FOIA documents, p. 22.
12. Email from Julie MacDonald dated 5 April 2003 titled "5-year review of the Marbled Murrelet and N. Spotted Owl." p. 10-11in EJ FOIA documents.
13. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Regional Office.Five-year review of Marbled Murrelet Completed[Draft]. Sent for review 26 August 2004. p. 32-33 in the EJ FOIA documents. Accessed 7 March 2008.
14. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Five-year review of Marbled Murrelet Completed [Final]. 1 September 2004. Accessed on 7 March 2008.
15. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, "Marbled Murrelet 5-Year Review Process," 31 August 2004. Accessed on 7 March 2008.
16. Jane Kay, "Suit Could Follow Any Delisting of Marbled Murrelet," San Francisco Chronicle, 26 October 2005, accessed 27 February 2006.
17. Jeff Barnard, "Bush Administration Moves to Change Protection for Marbled Murrelet," Corvallis Gazette-Times, 2 September 2004, accessed 27 February 2008.
18. Department of the Interior, "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Designation of Critical Habitat for the Marbled Murrelet; Proposed Rule," Federal Register Vol. 71, No. 176, September 12, 2006, accessed December 7, 2006. Accessed 27 February 2008.
19. Milstein, Michael. "Marbled Murrelet Will Keep Territory." The Oregonian. 6 March 2008. Accessed 6 March 2008.