Some scientists consider them functionally extinct—but critical nesting habitat is still not protected.
Marbled murrelets can fly at speeds up to 180 kph for short bursts, and their regular “cruising speed” is about 80 kph. (Photo: Deborah Freeman)
THE MARBLED MURRELET LOOKS A BIT LIKE A PENGUIN, but is only the size of a plump robin.
Like a penguin, it uses its wings to ‘fly’ underwater to catch fish—to depths as great as 27 metres.
However, unlike penguins, its wings can also achieve great speed in the air. The motivation of life and death lies behind that speed: As one federal researcher explains, marbled murrelets “are essentially 220-gram balls of fat and muscle that have to fly from the sea to the forest, where they can be attacked by all kinds of raptors.”
Marbled murrelets fly with an average cruising speed of about 80 kph, he said, but some have been clocked as fast as an amazing 180 kph. (A “jet plane” sound has even been heard when some make a rapid descent from a high altitude.)
This quirky little sea bird can avoid or outrun a great many of its predators. But speed can’t help it escape one of its biggest threats—logging of its irreplaceable nesting habitat.
It is the species’ great misfortune that they require wide, tall trees in old-growth forests in order to nest and reproduce. And not just a few. Researchers suggest each nesting pair requires at least 37 to 50 square hectares. They find greater safety by avoiding each other, rather than hanging out in colonies.
Marbled murrelets nest on wide branches, high above the forest floor, and lay only one egg. This chick was rescued after falling off the nesting platform. Most chicks, however, would not survive the fall. (Photo: Peter Halasz)
The birds’ lives are largely spent calmly at sea, along the west coast from Alaska down to California. But this species’ need for safety in two different habitats—both sea and forest—and its slow reproductive rate, make it extremely vulnerable. Each mated pair may lay only one egg per year.
Ironically, despite the continued destruction of their breeding areas, marbled murrelets are ‘protected’ by several governments.
It’s been more than 100 years since the United States and Great Britain (on Canada’s behalf) first decided to protect marbled murrelets and other migratory birds.
That agreement reads in part that the two countries: “… being desirous of saving from indiscriminate slaughter and of insuring the preservation of such migratory birds as are either useful to man or are harmless, have resolved to adopt some uniform system of protection which shall effectively accomplish such objects...”
The Migratory Bird Convention of 1916 is still in effect, now amended by a 1995 Protocol. And other countries have joined over the years: Mexico, Japan, and Russia. But are these agreements as effective as they were intended to be?
In the US, the Migratory Bird Act based on that treaty, along with the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and individual states’ laws, may protect somewhat more habitat than has been the case in Canada.
In one example, Pacific Lumber was permanently prevented from harvesting old-growth timber in its own privately owned forest, in an area called Owl Creek in Humboldt County, CA in 1995.
The case noted approximately 100 observations of marbled murrelet nesting behaviour in that forest, as well as the fact the entire population could be wiped out by a single oil spill at sea.
Even partial logging of the area would dangerously increase access to raptors that prey on murrelets and their eggs, it was stated. That case has since been used as a precedent in several other situations.
Canada, however, has been slower to provide much real protection. Federally, marbled murrelets have been listed as threatened since 2003. In BC, it is blue-listed, meaning it is a “species of concern.” Yet all these policies have not paid off in large vistas of untouched habitat for marbled murrelets in BC.
For instance, despite a 2005 report stating that “large numbers of murrelets” were discovered flying into the San Juan River drainage area on southern Vancouver Island, where logging was ongoing, no harvesting was stopped then, or since.
Federal mapping of marbled murrelet critical habitat (yellowish areas) in an area typical of TFL 46. That habitat is being steadily converted to clearcuts and tree plantations in TFL 46 and elsewhere on the coast. (BC government Data Catalogue)
Now, 17 years later, Fairy Creek is the only remaining relatively intact watershed within the entire San Juan system.
“Many would argue that marbled murrelets—and other species like mountain caribou—are already functionally extinct,” says Dr. Tara Martin, a UBC professor of conservation science. “They’re at such low numbers that they’re no longer performing their ecological functions.”
How did this happen, when Canada agreed and planned to conserve them for more than 100 years? Both levels of government must bear some responsibility.
UBC professor of conservation science Dr Tara Martin
Martin explains that the province of BC has the richest biodiversity in Canada, and more species at risk than any other. But it is one of only three provinces with no legislation to protect its threatened species.
Enacting legislation to protect endangered species was promised in the NDP’s 2017 election campaign. Premier Horgan’s first mandate letter to environment minister George Heyman included the instruction to create it. But the legislation is yet to appear.
The federal government, too, has let wildlife down. Martin explains that although the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada declared the species endangered in 2003, the marbled murrelet recovery plan was not written for another 11 years. Worse, an action plan is still awaited. Without it, “there is little in the form of recovery,” she says.
“The action plan provides the details of the actions to undertake to recover a species,” Martin explains. She feels the federal process should be revised to develop action plans soon after species are listed—not years later.
The sad but inevitable result is that, although marbled murrelets’ critical habitat areas are identified, most of it is still not protected from logging.
“There has been no actual designation of specific stands of forest as critical habitat,” says Dr. Alan Burger. The University of Victoria adjunct professor and wildlife consultant is known for his decades of research and field studies on marbled murrelets.
“That is a major failure of the Recovery Strategy and the response by both federal and provincial governments,” he said. “There is ongoing logging in much of the forest which has been mapped as potential critical habitat.”
Yet the goal of species protection laws “is to maintain this species as a common breeder throughout its current range in BC.”
Indeed, marbled murrelets are not the only species receiving far less government support than they actually need. In a 2015 report about the lack of designated critical habitat for listed species in Canada, UBC professor Dr. Karen Hodges wrote: “The majority of species are not being afforded the protection the law is required to offer to them.”
During the past year, UBC professor emeritus in chemical and biological engineering Dr. Royann Petrell and a team of citizen scientists recorded 115 marbled murrelet sightings just outside Fairy Creek, in the next watershed over, called upper Granite Creek. Most were seen in an area Fairy Creek protestors had dubbed “Heli Camp,” on the face of a mountain which slopes into Granite Creek drainage on one side, and Fairy Creek drainage on the other.
Dr. Royann Petrell (right) and citizen scientists examine images taken in unprotected forest in the Walbran Valley. (Photo: Deborah Freeman)
Since August 2020, protestors had established several camps to protect these remaining old-growth forests, which grew uninterrupted down the slopes from Fairy Creek. Nearly 1,200 were arrested after Teal Jones was granted an injunction against protestors in its Tree Farm Licence 46, which includes Fairy Creek and much of the remaining old growth forests in the area. After the camps were routed in early August, the rate of logging increased.
Petrell described Heli Camp as “perfect marbled murrelet habitat,” with good cover to protect the birds as they fly upstream on daily fishing trips from the ocean, and wide, mossy platform-like limbs high up in towering old-growth trees, where their single precious egg might be safely hidden.
But since then, 90 per cent of the Heli Camp cutblock has been logged. (In addition, the clear-cutting destroyed most of a colony of rare, at risk, Old Growth Specklebelly lichen—which was likely the largest population ever recorded in BC.)
Of Petrell’s sightings, Martin says, “This is the remarkable thing: if that was federal land, it would be designated as critical habitat.” But because it is BC Crown land, which falls under provincial jurisdiction, it was not.
She adds that if a nest is identified in a tree, there is some protection—but only till the end of nesting season. Then the tree could still be cut down. (Regardless, it is next to impossible to find marbled murrelets’ nests, high up on wide, mossy branches in tall trees.)
As Martin sums up, “These rules are absurd. They do not do anything to protect birds or other species in the long term.”
Marbled murrelets are known to return year after year, to nest in the same stand of ancient trees. Scientists call it “high site fidelity.”
“We don’t know what happens if their nest stand is lost. But if they are like other Alcids [a family of marine birds which includes puffins and murres] in some instances, they may not breed again,” says Oregon University professor Kim Nelson.
“If the whole stand is lost to fire or logging, we really don’t know if they move to new stands. What if the nearby stands are already full of murrelets?”
Marbled murrelets do not build nests. Instead they lay their single eggs in thick, mossy depressions on wide branches. These nesting “platforms” don’t exist in smaller trees—only big, wide trees, usually of a great age, can grow such wide branches. If there is no alternative but to nest on smaller branches, eggs or chicks can fall to their deaths.
Both Burger and Martin are enthusiastic about the potential of a November 2021 ministerial order to protect marbled murrelets—except for the fact that logging is still happening in the areas it mentions.
As the situation stands, Petrell’s 115 sightings—confirmed by radar—will not save the remaining nesting habitat in the Heli Camp area, nor any of the other old-growth forest fragments nearby.
Heli Camp area—until it was logged, this old growth forest was largely intact and continued over the mountain and into Fairy Creek. (Photo: Will O’Connell)
As part of Teal Cedar’s Tree Farm License 46, almost all of these last iconic old-growth trees are slated to be clear-cut within 15 to 20 years, at most. The company’s stated harvest flow objective is to keep cutting “until all the old growth is exhausted.”
This year’s cutblocks have been authorized, and logging has begun. Roads to the cutblocks, though public, are now blocked by newly installed gates.
The gates are authorized by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development in response to Teal Cedar’s requests to restrict public access for the purpose of “protecting logging operations.” A private security firm was hired to guard the gates.
Closing or restricting the usage of roads is permitted by the ministry if property, public health, or public safety might be endangered.
Last year, similar gates and RCMP officers prevented Petrell and her team from surveying birds and their habitat at Fairy Creek and other nearby old-growth forests such as Eden Grove, Bugaboo, Walbran and Caycuse.
This year, Petrell is fighting back. Earlier this month, Ecojustice environmental law charity announced it will challenge at least eight of the road closures in TFL46 on her behalf.
“By closing access to roads that have been used regularly by the public, Teal Cedar has effectively turned wide swathes of public lands into private property,” the Ecojustice news release stated.
It also noted that the ministry’s approvals for the gates did not require Teal Cedar to maintain reasonable public access.
“The gates in TFL 46 prevent citizen scientists from identifying and protecting at-risk species in areas where logging is imminent,” Petrell said. She added that the wildlife surveys these volunteers are trying to carry out should have been done years ago by the BC government—before it approved any logging.
“At a time of biodiversity crisis,” Ecojustice lawyer Rachel Gutman added, “we need scientists like Dr. Petrell to be able to carry out their important work of mapping species unimpeded. Logging companies shouldn’t be able to stand in their way.”
Until the case is heard, however, no one is likely to be permitted to check first for signs of marbled murrelets, or their nests, in the stands of old-growth forest being destroyed in TFL 46.
At this point, the marbled murrelets’ best hope may lie with Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent mandate letter to Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change: “Work with the Minister of Natural Resources to help protect old growth forests, notably in British Columbia…”
The letter asks Minister Guilbeault to reach a nature agreement with BC, establish a $50 million BC old growth nature fund, and to ensure that First Nations, local communities and workers “are partners in shaping the path forward for nature protection.”
This is all a tall order. Premier Horgan has already indicated that $50 million would not be nearly enough money. Last year when the fund was announced, he suggested the federal government should “add a zero.”
Meanwhile, marbled murrelets are still listed as a threatened species in BC and Canada. And logging of their known and rapidly diminishing critical habitat continues—despite intentions to protect them that date back more than one hundred years.
Grace Golightly (her name since birth) is a freelance writer interested in the protection of nature and human rights.