The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to throw out the birdy with the lawsuit.
The federal government's principal wildlife conservation agency said this week that it wants to withdraw a 16-year old designation of protected habitat for a Pacific Northwest bird species in order to resolve settle an industry lawsuit.
In a proposed consent decree filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court in Washington, the Obama administration, an Oregon county, a timber industry organization, and a carpenter's union agreed that a series of court decisions requires that critical habitat for the endangered marbled murrelet be "reconsidered."
The industry lawsuit alleges that FWS improperly included in the designation land that is not actually needed by the bird species for survival.
A coalition of environmental organizations said that the administration has "given up" in the face of the lawsuit.
“Given the precarious plight of the murrelet, the administration’s decision to remove critical habitat is the height of recklessness,” Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland, said. “The murrelet cannot withstand increased logging on BLM lands or anywhere else.”
The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) depends on old-growth forests for habitat and, in particular, uses the oldest trees for nests. The species seems to prefer larger stands as nesting grounds.
A tiny bird that is in the same family as auks, the murrelet's habitat is generally within about one mile of the ocean. Some have been found somewhat farther from the coast, however, with individuals having been seen as far as 59 miles from the Washington coastline.
A government spokesman said that other provisions of the Endangered Species Act and a management plan for Pacific Northwest national forests would provide enough protection for the bird.
Gary Frazer, the FWS assistant director for endangered species, said in an affidavit filed in court that removing the critical habitat designation "will not result in significant harm to the murrelet."
The proposed consent decree includes a provision that would require FWS to again finalize a critical habitat designation by Sept. 30, 2018.
Environmentalists point to recent research indicating that marbled murrelet numbers in Washington, Oregon, and northern California are continuing to decline due to ongoing timber harvesting activities in the region.
Some of the old-growth forest land in the region is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which has been under pressure both from Congress and its parent agency, the Department of Interior, to increase logging.
A total of 3.9 million acres would be affected if the administration succeeds in removing habitat protection for the murrelet.
Courts have generally allowed critical habitat designations to stand in the face of allegations of error in the decision-making process, allowing FWS to correct mistakes without risking further harm to the protected species.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates will decide whether to approve the proposed settlement.