Court Overturns Government Refusal to Protect Rare Humboldt Marten
The federal courts have just taken the Humboldt marten off of death row. In response to a lawsuit brought by the Environmental Protection Information Center and the Center for Biological Diversity, a federal judge has overturned an April 2014 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denying endangered species protection to the Humboldt marten (also known as the coastal marten). The Fish and Wildlife Service will have to revisit their decision on the fate of our furry friends by October 1, 2018. Without listing, recovery of the marten is likely impossible.
A small carnivore related to minks and otters, the Humboldt marten is found only in old-growth forest and dense coastal shrub in Northern California and Southern and central coastal Oregon. Believed extinct until 1996 due to historic fur trapping and loss of old-growth forest habitats they inhabit, Humboldt martens are now known to occur in only three small, isolated populations in California and Oregon. Since then researchers have continued to detect martens using track plates and hair snares.
Today, there are less than 100 Humboldt martens left in California. This number is so low that a single event—disease, poisoning, fire—could eradicate all Humboldt martens from California. The species could also easily drift towards extinction on its own. We have seen an alarming dip in population. Between 2001 and 2012, the remaining population of Humboldt martens has declined by 42 percent—and this was largely before the record-setting drought!
The court found many issues with the logic employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in denying protections for the marten. First, the court found the California population was “exceedingly small” and “declining” and not “stable,” as the agency decided. This flaw mattered, the court held, because it affected the rest of the agency’s analysis. Further, the court found that the agency erred by finding that marten populations were reproductively connected to one another. The court noted that not only did this not reflect the best available science, but it also contradicted the statements of their own scientists.
“This decision is a win for science and common sense,” said Rob DiPerna, California forest and wildlife advocate at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “We thought we’d lost the marten due to bad human decision-making once before, and we could not stand by and watch that happen again.”
EPIC’s court victory was just the first step to recovering the marten. In order to recover the marten in California, establishing connectivity passages between high-quality marten habitat is essential. However, much of this habitat is on private forestlands managed for industrial timber extraction.
Through clearcut-style forestry, timber companies radically reshape the landscape, including what prey—and predators—call home. By converting a maturing forest to a young, regrowing “early seral” forest, timber companies are also making better homes for the marten’s predators: bobcats and coyotes. Increased predation is a likely contributor to the rapid decline, encouraged by clearcuts adjacent to marten habitat. By creating better predator habitat near marten habitat, bobcats and coyotes are able to better infiltrate adjacent marten habitat, a concept in ecology known as “edge effects.”
This victory does not end EPIC’s work to secure protections for the Humboldt marten. EPIC is leading the fight for the marten on two fronts. First, EPIC is working to ensure that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes its listing decision based on sound science, not politics. We will be watching the Service every step of the way. Second, EPIC has a backup plan: We’ve submitted a listing petition to the California Fish and Game Commission to list the species under the California Endangered Species Act, which would provide some measure of protection against unsustainable forestry practices that lead to dead martens. A final decision should be made later this year.