Marbled Murrelets And The Big Basin General Plan

May 17, 2013—The good news today for people worried about the marbled murrelet is that new development in Big Basin Redwoods State Park won’t happen in or near the old growth forest.

At a meeting of the state Parks and Recreation Commission today in Scotts Valley, parks staff presented a general plan that works hard to draw activity away from the old-growth forest where the extraordinary seabird nests. A new welcome center is planned for the nearby Saddle Mountain parcel, for example, pulling visitor-intensive activity away from the current Park Headquarters, across from the spectacular Redwood Trail. In a brand new round of revisions, staff even scrapped a plan to build up to 10 new tent cabins in Sky Meadow Group Camp out of concern for the birds’ welfare.

The bad news for the marbled murrelet watchers is that the new plan leaves certain campgrounds in place—specifically Blooms Creek, Jay Camp and Sempervirens Campground, all of which are close the old growth forest—not to mention all the picnicking areas near the biggest trees in the park. (Because who doesn’t want to eat or camp or generally hang out near these magnificent trees?)

Campgrounds and picnic areas mean food, explains Shaye Wolf, Climate Science Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. (Ditto a park store.) And food means ravens and Steller’s jays hanging around waiting for crumbs to fall and campers to leave so they can gobble up dropped smores fixin’s and sodden leftovers from dishwashing near the faucets. And then when the crowds go home and the easiest meals evaporate, the birds go looking for other easy pickings, and that’s when they find the murrelet eggs.

“So the marbled murrelet can’t keep its numbers up,” says Wolf. “And there are only 450 individuals in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”

A seabird, the marbled murrelet makes its living fishing in the ocean and marshes. But it nests inland, in very tall, flat-topped trees—redwoods, Douglas firs, sitka spruces—which basically means old-growth timber. Their population is more secure in Canada and Alaska. But here they’re not doing so well. Besides Big Basin, they also nest in trees in Butano State Park, Portola Redwoods State Park and Memorial County Park near Pescadero.

Battling the Corvids
Meanwhile, the park’s raven and jay population, which belongs to a bird grouping called the corvids, has exploded, drawn by the abundance of food. “The Pacific Seabird Group has documented a population density of corvids in the park that is 5 to 10 times the naturally occurring density,” says Wolf.

Most of the bird supporters who turned out to offer public comment at today’s meeting noted that Big Basin scientists have worked hard to control the number of corvids. Wildlife biologist Steven Singer, who in the early 1990s discovered the third and fourth murrelet nests ever detected in the area, praised parks staff for installing corvid-proof trash cans, putting food lockers around the park, hiring a staffer to inform visitors about the need to keep crumbs off the ground and putting signage around. “The most recent results [of corvid surveys] show these efforts are reducing corvid numbers,” said Singer.

On the other hand, the murrelet population of Big Basin has plummeted and will need help if it’s ever to recover. “Butano [State Park] has four times as much nesting as Big Basin,” he said. “In Big Basin, the marbled murrelet population is 15% of what they were in 1995. Most of the Big Basin breeders have moved elsewhere or died off.”

Is the drop in Big Basin murrelets directly attributable to the human presence? Nobody really knows for sure. But Leslie Flint of Sequoia Audubon puts it this way: “It’s like climate change. People say, ‘We don’t know what’s causing it,’ but since it’s happening, why wouldn’t you take steps to mitigate it?”

Balancing the welfare of a heroic little bird against public access to giant redwoods—an ambassador species if there ever was one—isn’t a job for the faint of heart. Parks officials assured the audience that they’re studying the situation and have heard loud and clear all the support for relocating certain facilities—including support from the Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s some comfort for murrelet watchers.

“The good news is the general plan won’t result in the extirpation of the murrelet,” said Singer, “but it won’t aid it unless it’s modified.”

The parks commission also heard a presentation and comments about the Little Hoover Commission report on the state of the state parks, but took no action.

Learn more in the Draft General Plan for Big Basin.

Read more about the approved Big Basin plan in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

How to Fix State Parks
Portola Redwoods State Park