The marbled murrelet, a small, swift coastal sea bird that nests in old-growth forest canopies of the Pacific Northwest, is poised to become the latest player in the tangled regional debate that is increasingly characterized here as preserving wildlife species at the cost of jobs.
A spokesman for the Interior Department said Friday that the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to place the bird on the federal endangered species list as a threatened species on Monday. That decision was mandated by a federal judge--and endorsed by an appeals panel Thursday--who said the government had run out of time to make a determination on the bird.
It was first proposed for listing as endangered nearly five years ago. With a decision due this past summer, the government had granted itself an extension until the end of the year.
The appeals panel declared in its opinion that "further delay . . . would thwart the purpose of the Endangered Species Act."
The Interior Department announced Friday that a further extension is necessary "to assure the people of the Northwest that such a decision was made on the best available information." It said it would appeal the decision, although "we . . . have no choice but to comply with (the judicial) order and proceed with the listing decision."
A temporary ban on logging in national forest habitat of the murrelet was imposed last week and already has idled dozens of logging operations in Washington and Oregon. The ban was extended Friday. All timber sales in murrelet areas will have to meet Endangered Species Act requirements after the bird is listed as endangered.
The murrelet lives and forages around the coastal waters of the northern Pacific but builds its nest as far as 30 miles inland. It would join the better-known spotted owl on the controversial list. But most observers here do not expect the ramifications of the murrelet's addition to reverberate as loudly as the clamor that accompanied the listing of the owl two years ago.
One reason is that the sea bird's range in the Northwest is much smaller than the owl's. While estimates vary, no more than 1.1 million acres of national forest land is suitable murrelet habitat in coastal Oregon and Washington, compared to more than 6 million acres for the wider-ranging owl.
About 2,000 murrelets are thought to live in California. Oregon is believed to be home to another 2,000, while 5,000 are thought to live in Washington and 50,000 to 250,000 in Alaska.
Much of the murrelet's habitat is in areas that overlap the owl's, perhaps as much as two-thirds, according to the Forest Service. Thus, many timber areas, and the communities that depend on them, already have had logging operations curtailed by court injunctions to protect the owl.