The Fish and Wildlife Service is supporting response efforts to the oil drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico with specialists, land managers and support personnel. Booms to capture and deflect anticipated oil are being deployed at Breton National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of brown pelicans and shorebirds are nesting. The service also is initiating natural resource damage assessment and restoration activities in this incident to assess and address the long-term damage.
Service employees from national wildlife refuges, environmental contaminants and a service helicopter or contracted aircraft have been part of the response effort from the beginning and will continue to work with federal, state and local counterparts and conservation organizations, the Coast Guard, the responsible party and all other contributors in this response effort.
As the encroachment of oil into coastal zones appears imminent, primary concerns include potential impacts to 20 coastal national wildlife refuges within the possible trajectory of the spill. In addition, this is the avian nesting season, sea turtle nesting season is approaching, Gulf sturgeon are congregating in coastal waters for upstream migration, and manatees are migrating back into summer areas more widespread than winter gathering spots in warm springs areas; all of these resources could be affected by the spill.
To help reduce the potential impacts to wildlife, especially sea birds, shorebirds, and other wildlife, the service is advising the incident command on methods and procedures to mitigate damage from the oil on wildlife. It also conducts, coordinates and supervises search and capture for oiled wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting aerial flights to identify any oiled wildlife and help facilitate recovery and treatment by the responsible party. British Petroleum has contracted for bird and wildlife rehabilitation experts from around the country to treat oiled wildlife.
To report oiled or injured wildlife, call 866-557-1401. Individuals are urged not to attempt to help injured or oiled animals, but to report any sightings to the toll free number.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national wildlife refuges in the area are assessing potential threats, submitting priority areas to protect and conducting planning in anticipation of oil landfall. Breton National Wildlife Refuge appears to be most endangered by the oil slick. Booms to catch and deflect oil are being placed.
Staffing will increase to support response operations. A southeast regional response team is being organized in the Atlanta Regional Office.
Many factors make predictions on timing and degree of impact difficult, including tidal patterns, wind, weather and the unknown impact of the spill recovery actions, which may include igniting the oil spill.
The service greatly regrets the loss of life from the explosion and fire that triggered this release, and our thoughts go out to those who have lost loved ones in this incident.
Potential threats to bird life along the Gulf Coast
The greatest threat to bird life is to species which nest along the barrier islands, beaches and shorelines along the Gulf Coast. Species at risk include sandwich tern, royal tern, least tern, Forster's tern, caspian tern, brown pelican and black skimmer. Birds are most susceptible to being oiled while foraging for fish and other food items in the open Gulf waters or near nesting sites. Nesting sites/colonies could also be at risk if storm tides push oiled water over barrier islands or beaches where those birds typically nest.
Several species of birds found in interior marsh areas could also be affected if oiled water moves farther inland. Species at risk include great blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, mottled duck, clapper rail, king rail and common moorhen. Those species would also be at greatest risk while foraging in oiled water.
The longer oiled water persists, greater numbers of hatchlings and fledglings of the above species will be present and be particularly vulnerable.
Refuge staff have estimated more than 34,000 birds, including 2,000 pairs of pelicans, 5,000 pairs of royal terns, 5,000 pairs of caspian terns and 5,000 pairs of feeding, loafing and nesting gulls and other shore birds.
The Breton National Wildlife Refuge also provides an initial barrier to storms for the southeast Louisiana wetlands, and the geomorphologic features and vegetation on those features are key components in protecting metropolitan New Orleans.
The wetlands of Delta National Wildlife Refuges are important nesting sites for mottled duck, and the shallow wetlands and mud flats are important feeding areas for large numbers of shore birds, wading birds and fisheries.
Tom MacKenzie is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.