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Appeals court upholds protection for murrelet

A federal appeals court has rejected a lawsuit by the timber industry seeking to strip Endangered Species Act protection from a threatened seabird that nests in old-growth forests.

Environmentalists say the ruling Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., should mark the end of a 15-year legal battle over logging trees used by marbled murrelets along the coasts of Oregon, Washington and northern California.

The American Forest Resources Council had argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily and capriciously in designating the U.S. population of marbled murrelets distinct from birds in Canada, despite a line in the law saying political boundaries are a valid reason. The appeals court found the decision did not depart from standard practice, and it let stand a district court ruling.

"The big picture is that we are disappointed in our continued inability to get the judicial branch of our government to exert some control over the administrative branches' overzealous interpretation in favor of the marbled murrelet," said Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland. "It's not about the bird. It's about logging. It's the bird du jour."

Kristen Boyles, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said she felt the reason the timber industry has been willing to fight so hard to remove protections for the marbled murrelet is that it is not as charismatic as the northern spotted owl, which was the prime focus of lawsuits that cut logging by 90 percent on national forests in the Northwest.

The marbled murrelet is a robin-sized bird that feeds and lives on the ocean, but it flies as much as 50 miles inland to lay a single egg in a mossy depression on a large tree branch. While much of the battle over logging in the Northwest has gone on over habitat for spotted owls and salmon on national forests, the marbled murrelet was the reason the Oregon Department of Forestry withdrew two dozen timber sales on the Elliott State Forest outside Coos Bay last year.

Under a federal court order, the marbled murrelet was listed as a threatened species in 1992 in Oregon, Washington and California because of the loss of nesting habitat to commercial logging, the loss of fish to eat to gillnetting and oil spills.