When it comes to protecting threatened and endangered wildlife in Oregon, the challenge is both identifying individual species that need attention, as well as promoting the concepts of stewardship and conservation on a larger scale to guide general policies and practices throughout the state.
While Oregon Wild, a nonprofit conservation organization, is dedicated to preserving and protecting iconic and keystone species, the group has a higher purpose, as well, wildlife coordinator Danielle Moser said during her Listening to the Land presentation “Lost and Imperiled Species of the Oregon Coast” on April 17.
“The work we do on specific wildlife is really to serve a greater good to make sure the entire state — our legislators, our commission for (the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife), our agency — cares about protection, restoration and recovery of these species,” she said.
During her lecture, subtitled “An Exploration of Oregon’s Iconic, Recovering and Threatened Wildlife,” Moser discussed five keystone species that used to or currently inhabit Oregon, what external factors threaten their existence, and what policies and/or practices contribute to their recovery.
According to historical references, Moser said, sea otters used to live in Oregon and “were important to the native coastal communities.” Colonialism and the burgeoning international fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries contributed to sea otters’ extirpation. By 1810, they were reported “very scarce in Oregon,” and in 1911, the last wild sea otter was reportedly shot near Newport, Moser said.
In 1969 and 1970, the federal government attempted to translocate sea otters from Amchitka Island to Oregon after an oil spill. This was before the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act were adopted, which is important because “there wasn’t quite the same level of monitoring and data collection, and just tracking what happened to the sea otters,” Moser said.
The attempt was unsuccessful, although a concurrent translocation to Washington produced better results. According to Moser, various Oregon groups and agencies are investigating the benefits of a more thoughtful, meticulous reintroduction and what it would take to be successful.
A native species of Oregon, the California Condor population faced a human-caused decline in the mid-1900s because of lead, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals used especially in agriculture and farming. By 1980s, the state’s population was 22 birds.
When Oregon adopted its Endangered Species Act, the California condor was listed as critically endangered. The government brought the remaining wild birds into captivity to stop their demise.
“If we hadn’t done that, the likelihood the (species) would have gone extinct is pretty high,” Moser said.
As of 2016, the population was 446 birds, about half in captive breeding and half in the wild. Although the species is moving toward recovery, Moser said there also is a discussion about what must be done at a community level to reduce lead, other toxic chemicals, and microtrash to bolster the species’ success.
Humboldt coastal marten
Currently, there are less than 200 coastal martens between two separate populations, one in Central Oregon and one in Southern Oregon. The species is threatened by high predation, habitat loss, road kill, and trapping. Scientists concur as few as two or three human-caused mortalities could cause the population’s extinction, Moser said.
As the public is allowed to trap coastal martens under the furbearer purview, Oregon Wild filed a petition with the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to ban trapping. The commission approved the petition, but the agency has yet to finalize the ban. After the organization threatened to take legal action, work progressed and “we should have a trapping ban before the 2019 trapping season commences,” Moser said.
Simultaneously, the group petitioned the state to get the coastal marten listed as an endangered species. The request was denied, with the state claiming the coastal marten is a distinct population of the American marten, not its own subspecies. The federal government did list the coastal marten as threatened, but also affirmed the animal is a distinct population segment, making it difficult for conservation groups to keep challenging the state’s decision.
The marbled murrelet is a small seabird that nests in old-growth forest, forages at sea, and requires a “very specific type of environment,” Moser said. The Coast Range Forest Watch, Oregon State University and Kalmiopsis Audubon Society are leading research, conducting surveys and gathering data to help guide policy.
The federal Endangered Species Act listed the bird as threatened in 1992, and the species was transferred to Oregon’s list in 1995. Typically, listing a species should trigger survival guidelines and management plans, neither of which were developed, Moser said.
In 2016, Oregon Wild and other conservation groups petitioned the wildlife commission to uplist the marbled murrelet from threatened to endangered. After conducting an assessment of the species and determining it met the legal and scientific criteria, the commission did so the following February, and staff started developing mandatory survival guidelines.
A few months later, caving to intense pressure from the logging industry, the commission flipped its decision without public input and made the survival guidelines voluntary.
“It was really upsetting to say the least,” Moser said, adding Oregon Wild and the other petitioners are currently engaged in a lawsuit with the commission.
Gray wolves historically lived on the coast range, but suffered at the hands of a nationwide campaign to extirpate wolves. Once the government acknowledged there is a negative impact “when you take out the top predator and carnivore in an ecosystem,” Moser said, they reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho, and the animals moved west.
“Wolves were never physically reintroduced in Oregon,” she said. “They dispersed on their own.”
While the species is moving toward recovery and wolf population in Oregon is about 140, progress is slow, Moser said. The wildlife commission plans to vote on a wolf conservation and management plan in June, but conservation groups are concerned the plan’s provisions undermine progress and will pose a challenge to recovery.
“They’re proposing to really have quite a low bar for when the agency can kill wolves, they’ve removed requirements around using nonlethal [methods of intervention],” Moser said. “And the worst and probably most egregious is that it allows members of the public to hunt and trap wolves on behalf of the agency.”
Reflecting public values
Although Oregon Wild and other conservation groups are occasionally at odds with the state’s fish and wildlife department, Moser said, their goal is the ensure the commission and agency fulfill “their whole mission,” including the non-game and non-consumptive value of various species in the state.
“We just want the agency to reflect the values that the public has around fish and wildlife,” Moser said. “If we have the right entity, the right decision-makers in place, then from there flows good policies for all the different animals I’ve talked about today.”
The final Listening to the Land lecture for the 2019 season will be held at 6 p.m. May 15. Jed Arnold, the community outreach and stewardship coordinator for Hampton Lumber, and Dr. Christine Buhl, with the Oregon Department of Forestry, will present on “Preserving Pollination on Oregon’s North Coast: Working Forests as Native Pollinator Habitat.”