PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon officials have suspended 10 recent and upcoming timber sales on about 800 acres of state land as they prepare for a legal fight with conservation groups over a rare seabird.
The question in that battle is whether the state's logging goals in the coastal Elliott, Tillamook and Clatsop state forests illegally harm the habitat of the threatened marbled murrelet, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The bird lays its eggs on the large, mossy branches of mature and old-growth trees.
The state suspended the sales so that officials who would normally work on timber sales could focus on preparing for the federal court fight in Portland, said Kevin Weeks, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
"This is the first time this sort of action has been taken in response to a lawsuit," Weeks said.
In May, three environmental groups — Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Audubon Society of Portland — sued Gov. John Kitzhaber and Oregon forestry agencies in an effort to halt logging in areas where the bird nests.
The lawsuit contends that logging in marbled murrelet habitat is killing or displacing the small birds.
Weeks says foresters already manage state lands to protect the murrelet, for example by scaling down logging operations during nesting season.
Still, the bird's numbers are declining. A 2010 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey estimated there were 16,700 marbled murrelets from California to Washington. That compares with an estimated 22,200 in 2001.
Hoping to stop any logging near murrelet nesting areas while the lawsuit plays out, the three environmental groups filed for an injunction Friday targeting 11 state timber sales — including the 10 sales the state has now halted — as well as any future sales in known murrelet habitat.
Of the 10 suspended timber sales, three were due to go out for bid in June; two were due to be put out to bid in the next few months; three were sold in the last two years but have not yet been logged; and two have already been partially logged.
A ruling on the injunction request could come sometime this summer.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.