Agency rejects glacier seabird for endangered list

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An Alaska and Russia seabird that forages in glacier melt flowing into ocean runoff has been rejected for endangered species status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency concluded that no additional protections are needed for the Kittlitz’s murrelet, which it acknowledged declined by 30 percent annually from 1989 to 2000.

In a 161-page finding made public Tuesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service noted recent demographic information indicates the population has stabilized and likely will undergo only a slow decline of less than 2 percent annually going forward.

The agency also rejected a link between the birds’ ability to survive and tidewater glaciers, despite acknowledging that 66 percent of the global population feed in the outflow into oceans during the breeding season.

Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned to list the seabirds, called that conclusion “bizarre.” Research has linked the loss of nutrient-rich glacier outflow to declines in the population, she said by phone from San Francisco.

“We’re going to evaluate the options for challenging this,” Wolf said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game website describes the Kittlitz’s murrelet as a small, stocky seabird with a relatively large head and short bill and tail. It has a light-colored belly and brown, gray or reddish-gold feathers on its back, wings and head. Its large eyes may help it forage in turbid glacier water, according to the department.

Kittlitz’s murrelets feed on fish and zooplankton. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to list the birds in 2001 following a population decline it estimated at 80 to 90 percent in core areas such as Alaska’s Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound.

The listing petition also noted dramatic retreats and thinning of coastal glaciers, which reduced foraging habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, said the species is broadly distributed and found in areas that have been without glaciers for thousands of years. It said it could not find information indicating Kittlitz’s murrelets have greater foraging success and survival in waters affected by glaciers.

The agency said that although most glaciers are in retreat where the birds live, it could not conclude that the change in habitat would negatively affect the population.

“These rangewide inconsistencies in marine habitat use make it difficult to predict response of the Kittlitz’s murrelet to the loss of glaciers without an identified, underlying mechanism explaining the association,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

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