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Saturday, January 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:33 AM

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Suit challenges murrelet protection

The Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Hoping to remove one obstacle to logging on public lands, Coos County commissioners are suing to get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to carry out its promise to take the marbled murrelet off the threatened-species list.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Eugene argues that the original reasons for listing the 17,000 to 20,000 birds nesting in Oregon, Washington and Northern California no longer exist.

"The legal basis for the listing has disappeared," said Scott Shepard, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, the property-rights law firm representing Coos County.

The firm argues the wildlife service has improperly treated the birds in the United States as separate from birds in Canada, which has adopted its own version of the Endangered Species Act. Genetic testing shows the listed birds are not significantly different from the 1 million birds in Canada and Alaska.

Coos County Commissioner John Griffith said he hoped the delisting would ultimately lead to more logs coming off state and federal lands, where protections for the large trees where murrelets nest have contributed to reduced timber harvests.

"We need to file now to make sure [Fish and Wildlife doesn't] go into another 12 month or more slumber," Griffith said.

Last October, Fish and Wildlife said it would formally propose delisting the murrelet by the end of the year, but has yet to do so. The formal proposal would start a yearlong evaluation before a final decision is made.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman David Patte said the agency was working on the proposal, but had no target date for it to be made.

The marbled murrelet is a robin-sized bird that spends most of its life on the ocean, but flies as far as 50 miles inland to lay a single egg on the mossy branch of a large tree.

It was declared an endangered species in 1992 after conservationists sued the government.

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Court battles over habitat needs of the marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl and salmon led U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to adopt the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which curbed logging on federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California by 80 percent to protect fish and wildlife habitat.

Even those diminished logging levels have never been met, due to legal battles and lack of funding for federal agencies, leading the timber industry to press the Bush administration to ease environmental restrictions.

In a status review, 16 international scientists assembled under contract to Fish and Wildlife found the marbled murrelet was still declining through North America and was likely to disappear from Washington, Oregon and Northern California by the end of this century, particularly if more nesting trees were cut down.

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