A federal proposal would slash the critical habitat in Oregon, Washington and California set aside under the Endangered Species Act for the marbled murrelet, a threatened sea bird, by about 95 percent, to 221,692 acres.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday the bird already is protected by other plans such as the Northwest Forest Plan and state and tribal management plans on the 3.37 million acres that would lose the critical habitat designation.
It is studying a proposal to delist the bird altogether.
Of the land still listed as critical habitat, 53,640 acres would be newly designated, said agency spokeswoman Joan Jewett. She said the proposed changes would not affect areas open to logging.
The Audubon Society of Portland, which worked to get the bird listed, said it fears for the marbled murrelet's future.
The proposal opens the possibility of "rangewide extinction of this species within our lifetimes," said regional conservation director Susan Ash. "We will work to ensure that this does not happen on our watch."
Oregon would retain 82,747 acres of critical habitat. California would keep 112,037 acres and Washington 26,908.
Fraction under federal care
Just 1 percent of the land under the new designation would be federal. That is an area in Western Washington that is not covered by the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, Jewett said.
The marbled murrelet is a robin-sized seabird that spends most of its time in the marine environment and nests in Pacific coastal forests.
The service will take public comment on the proposal until Nov. 13 and is to issue a decision by Aug. 30, 2007.
Other management plans in the Pacific Northwest already protect the bird and make the critical habitat designation unnecessary, said Ren Lohoefener, the acting director of the agency's Pacific region.
The service said that in 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act it has found that critical habitat designation provides little protection to most listed species.
The reduced acres that would retain critical habitat designation have no management plan that would protect the bird, the agency said.
The proposal "serves as an invitation to landowners without a development plan to work with us to develop one," Lohoefener said.
The murrelet was designated as threatened in 1992 in Oregon, Washington and California, mostly because of population declines blamed on logging.
But a study by the University of California at Berkeley says overfishing of sardines may have forced the birds to rely on poorer quality food, undermining their breeding.
A Fish and Wildlife proposal to delist the bird entirely is on hold pending a range-wide survey of its populations.
Different from Alaska, Canada populations?
The delisting proposal is based on the idea that the 17,000 to 20,000 birds living off Washington, Oregon and California are not distinct from the nearly 1 million other murrelets living off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska.
Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group, took issue with fears that the proposal could lead to extinction.
"We're still looking at it but it is in the right direction," he said. "The bigger issue to us is why the species is listed at all."
He said the listing was based on an assumption that the U.S.-Canadian border was a line between two distinct murrelet populations.
"There are hundreds of thousands of the birds all the way around the Pacific to the Russian shore," he said. "It doesn't make sense to have the bird listed. That's still the underlying issue."
He said the proposal would mean impact studies still would have to be made for listed species but that paperwork could be avoided on acreage removed from critical habitat.
Background and an email link to respond to the proposal are online at www.fws.gov/pacific/marbledmurrelet/.