Wildlife crews work to save brown pelicans
The bird was removed from the endangered species list in November.
Sun, Jun 06, 2010 at 07:56 PM
OILED BIRD: Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican that was stuck in oil at Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)
The morning after President Barack Obama's visit to Grand Isle, a wildlife rescue boat slipped past an orange boom at nearby Queen Bess Island, home to thousands of rare brown pelicans and now under attack from a oil spill.
The rookery "is the worst-hit area in the state in terms of wildlife," Michael Carloss, a state biologist said Saturday. "We don't know about marine life yet because we don't know how much of the oil is underwater."
Wildlife experts are scrambling to save the brown pelican, which was removed from the endangered species list in November.
Brown pelicans are the only species of pelican that dive into the water for fish, putting them at greater risk for death by oiling, Carloss said.
Heavily oiled birds can die from exposure (even in the warm Gulf climate), by ingesting the toxic crude, or by drowning.
One wildlife expert at the bird rehabilitation center at Fort Jackson likens oiling to trying to swimming while wearing a raincoat.
Review of wildlife rescue efforts
Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who heads the federal government's response to Gulf Coast disaster, late last week ordered a review of wildlife rescue operations late last week after AFP reported that the president of the Sierra Club complained of insufficient efforts to handle oiled pelicans in Barataria Bay.
As of noon, June 5, 57 "visibly oiled" birds have been found dead since the oil spill began April 20 with the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion off the Louisiana coast, according to government reports.
The death toll — like the 156 visibly oiled birds found alive so far — has more than doubled since June 4, figures reflected in the accounts of boatmen, biologists and rescuers at Grand Isle on Saturday.
Bradley Verdin, a local boatman who carried journalists out to the rookery Saturday, said the oil started getting bad about three days ago.
"I'm glad they are trying to save these birds," he said. "I didn't think it was that bad until the day before yesterday."
He carries a large dog kennel on the front of his motorboat.
"One kennel can hold about two or three pelicans, in case we have to do a rescue," Verdin explained as he gunned his vessel toward Queen Bess Island.
Standing on the bow of another motorboat Saturday, Carloss watched from a distance as a flat-bottomed Cajun pirogue glided toward the tree-less mangrove and a heavily oiled pelican, floundering in the polluted water near the island shore.
A small flotilla of boats carrying federal and state wildlife experts and photographers pulled back from the island.
"We do not want a lot of boats inside the boom," Carloss said. "We don't want birds getting too excited and more stressed."
A helicopter hovers over the spectator-vessels. The chopper carries "hot-shot" biologists looking for the leading edge of the oil slick and helping to direct boat crews to the heavily oiled birds below, says Jewel Bennett, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Near the island the pirogue and a small workboat, coming from the opposite direction, carried blue-gloved rescue workers wearing white oil decontamination suits.
A worker in the pirogue scooped the oiled bird into a net. The feathered victim was then loaded into a dog kennel.
A spectator on a nearby boat cheered.
Time for triage
Back at Grand Isle, several boats pulled up to a dock. Workers lifted several pelican kennels from the boats. The doors to the containers were covered and the bids hidden from view and possibly protected from stress.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spirited the birds to a gray "triage" trailer at the Sand Dollar Marina at Grand Isle.
Rebecca Dmytrk, a wildlife capture specialist who has been working oil spills since 1991, oiled birds are brought to the trailer for "stabilization" then transported to a wildlife rehabilitation center near Venice, La.
She says that cleaning a frightened, oiled pelican can take four trained specialists 45 minutes. Caution is advised.
"Stress can kill wildlife. We humans are the 'predators,'" Dmytrk said. "The wild animals that we touch react as if they are being attacked when we are bathing them. People need to know we're not dealing with dogs and cats here."
As of noon Saturday, only five oiled birds were crated up for rescue, Carloss said, adding that was a sign improvement over 34 feathered victims rescued on Friday and 59 on Thursday.
"Today was much better than two days ago, and so far, better than yesterday as well," Carloss said.
Bill O'Brian, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the hot summer ahead favors the oiled bird rescue effort, even though the oil has yet to stop leaking.
"In a cold water oil spill, a heavily oiled bird is more likely to die immediately from exposure," O'Brian said, referring to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil in Alaska. "In warm weather like here in Grand Isle, we have more time" to spare the oiled birds from exposure to chill.
He also confidently reported on government's efforts to save the pelicans and other oil-threatened birds in Louisiana, one day after Obama's visit.
"We have 38 boat teams today — June 5 — carrying 118 personnel overall on the Louisiana coast," O'Brian said.
Copyright 2010 AFP American Edition