Humboldt Martens Receive Long-Awaited Endangered Species Protection

by Tom Wheeler

After 10 years, two lawsuits, and many new gray hairs, it finally happened. In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Humboldt marten as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Now our favorite furball is protected by the most effective environmental law on the planet. 

The Humboldt marten is a slinky little fuzzball about the size of a cat that lives in the old-growth coastal forests of Oregon and California. A history of overtrapping and habitat destruction has nearly wiped out the species. The marten is so rare that scientists once thought they were extinct. In 1996, researchers rediscovered a population on Six Rivers National Forest. Now there are 4 recognized populations, each small and isolated from each other. In 2010 EPIC filed a petition to list the species under the Endangered Species Act because of the precariously small populations and the host of threats—from clearcuts that increase predation of martens by bobcats to rodenticide from trespass cannabis grows on public land.

While this is a moment for celebration, our joy is tempered by efforts already made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to defang the teeth of this listing decision for the biggest private landowner in the range of the Humboldt marten. To understand the chicanery, you need a brief understanding of the inner workings of the Endangered Species Act. Under the Act, a species can either be listed as “threatened” or “endangered.” (Generally endangered species are worse off than threatened species, although there is no clear dividing line.) Endangered species receive the full suite of protections afforded by the law as a default. Threatened species, by contrast, have historically received the same protections as a matter of policy, although this is not guaranteed by the law itself. Protections for threatened species can be reduced through what are called 4(d) “special rules.” 

In listing the Humboldt marten, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a special rule that exempted individuals or corporations who have obtained a state-issued “Safe Harbor Agreement.” While seemingly ambiguous, this was a sweetheart deal written for one entity: Green Diamond, who received a Safe Harbor Agreement from California in 2019. Because of this special rule, Green Diamond is not subject to the Act’s prohibition on “taking,” meaning that Green Diamond’s forestry can kill an unlimited number of martens so long as Green Diamond meets the terms of their state permit—which ain’t much!

As part of EPIC’s full court press defense for the marten, we are challenging that state-issued Safe Harbor Agreement in Humboldt County Superior Court. And EPIC feels good about its chances. Documents obtained through a Public Records Act request have shown that agency scientists at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were overriden by their superiors in issuing the permit. If EPIC can strike down the state permit, Green Diamond won’t get special treatment under the federal Endangered Species Act.

What’s next for the marten? After ensuring that it will enjoy the full protections of the Endangered Species Act, it is on to protecting habitat corridors in between remaining blocks of high-quality marten habitat. Currently, California’s martens are marooned in land managed by Six Rivers National Forest. To ensure the longterm survival of the species, we need to link populations together and encourage the development of new, successful populations on other well-suited lands, like the Redwood State and National Park system along the coast.