Jul 29, 2010 11:02 AM by Melissa Canone
MAMOU, La. (AP) - Water gurgling from a well is flooding Craig
Gautreaux's rice and crawfish fields, turning the farm into a
wetland for migratory birds whose usual Gulf of Mexico wintering
grounds are threatened by the oil spill.
Across eight states, farmers such as Gautreaux are inundating
fallow fields to provide an alternative for some of the tens of
millions of ducks, geese and shorebirds that are beginning to make
their way south on a flyway that stretches as far north as Alaska
"Hopefully, we can help," said Gautreaux, who has dedicated
762 acres about 90 miles inland from the Gulf to the project under
a three-year, $132,441 contract that likely will cover his costs
but provide little if any profit. "I want to keep the birds
Biologists fear the birds will arrive at Gulf barrier islands,
shorelines and marshes only to find their nesting sites fouled and
their food supply depleted. Government officials hope to have
150,000 acres of manmade wetlands ready by Aug. 15, although they
do not know how many birds will use it.
The federal government hasn't funded anything like this $20
million project before, but farmers and scientists are hopeful the
program in the five Gulf states and Arkansas, Georgia and Missouri
could work. They note that Gulf-bound birds often stop anyway at
their farms, where rice and crawfish fields are already flooded for
parts of each season.
"There's a sense of urgency here," said Kevin Norton, who
heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's conservation programs in
Louisiana. If the oil causes major die-offs, he said, "that will
ripple through the populations for years to come."
The program is so popular that Texas and Louisiana exhausted
their initial funding within weeks and lobbied for more. Texas has
now received nearly $6 million under the program and hopes to have
all its contracts funded by Aug. 1.
Yet the scheme isn't likely to be a windfall for the farmers.
It's designed to compensate them for pumping and holding the water,
which can be expensive, without generating a profit.
The amount farmers are paid will depend on how much land they
devote and the steps they take to make it suitable for birds.
Flooding will cost between $43 and $200 per acre, depending on
factors such as water value in a particular area and the condition
of the land, said Russell Castro, a biologist with the federal
conservation service in Temple, Texas. Some farmers will have to
build small levees or dikes.
"Anyone who buys a farm and runs it themselves, I guess you
don't do it to get rich," said Grantt Guillory, 37, who raises
crawfish and soybeans in southern Louisiana's Atchafalaya River
watershed. "You get into it because you're somewhat of a steward
to the environment. I care about these birds and I'm afraid the oil
spill is going to devastate some of these species."
His grant application hasn't been accepted yet, but he's turning
about 235 marshy acres into wetlands anyway, keeping the area
submerged under six to 10 inches of water for a couple of months
longer than usual.
Farmers typically rotate which fields they plant, leaving some
fallow each year, and the ones being flooded for the birds are
generally those out-of-use plots. In some cases, the extra flooding
might take place before planting or after harvest.
Some farmers might choose to provide several inches of water and
mudflats from July through October, an ideal habitat for shorebirds
such as sandpipers and dowitchers. Shallow water on moist soils in
August and September could attract early migrating waterfowl such
as the blue-winged teal.
Deeper water would be needed from October through March for
diving ducks, such as redheads and canvasbacks.
About 15 million ducks and geese migrate annually to Texas,
Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, said Mike Brasher, a biologist
with the Gulf Coast Joint Venture, a partnership among government,
nonprofits and landowners for bird habitat preservation. When
shorebirds are added, he said, the total could reach 50 million.
Their habitat has been diminishing for years because of sinking,
erosion, hurricanes and pollution, said John Pitre, a wildlife
biologist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The oil spill just makes things worse.
Agencies involved with the new program "had wanted to do
something like this before, but never had the funding," Pitre
Many birds that spend cold-weather months in the Gulf region had
already flown north ahead of the spill, which was triggered by an
April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers. But scientists say
the danger will be waiting when they return - some as early as this
month- even if the leak has been plugged.
Norton acknowledged that some species might not seek out the
alternative habitat - especially those that instinctively return
annually to the same places.
However, he said, if they make even a quick stopover in the
newly developed habitat before continuing to the Gulf, they may go
back after finding their former haunts polluted.
The piping plover, a shorebird on the federal endangered species
list, spends winters nibbling tiny invertebrates on sandy Southern
beaches and probably won't be attracted to the new habitats at
first, said biologist Francie Cuthbert of the University of
Minnesota. But if the oil kills off their usual food supply, some
might fly inland.
Other birds, such as the common loon of the Great Lakes region,
prefer open-water habitat and probably will head directly for the
Gulf and Atlantic coasts, said Joe Kaplan, a biologist in
Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
James Gentz, a rice farmer in Winnie, Texas on the Gulf coast,
has signed two contracts for about $84,000 to keep 720 of his 1,200
acres flooded through March 31.
Keeping fields that would normally lie fallow this year flooded
through the winter will be time-consuming, but Gentz believes he
will turn a profit while helping the birds survive.
"For generations, they've been following a migratory pattern.
Hopefully, if they get down south, they'll come back to where we're
trying to help them," Gentz said.