Oil Spill Crude Disaster

May 19, 2010 9:40 AM by Sharlee Jacobs

La.'s State Bird Imperiled by Oil

CALIFORNIA BAY, La. (AP) - Hounded by hunters and fishermen,
driven to near-extinction by chemical pollution, the brown pelican
has survived a century of human abuse - only to face another
challenge from the giant oil spill threatening to devastate the
Gulf of Mexico marine environment.
The odd-looking seabird with a distinctive pouch beneath its
foot-long bill was removed from the federal endangered species list
only last November. Now its recovery could be undermined by
millions of gallons of oil polluting the Gulf since an April 20 rig
explosion.
So far, no brown pelicans are known to have died from causes
related to the spill. That's likely to change if the oil fouls
their nesting and feeding grounds along coastal and barrier
islands, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say.
The plight of Louisiana's state bird is emblematic of dangers
the disaster poses for the region's wildlife.
"I would not say there's going to be any species wiped out
because of it, but it's a very serious situation," said Bob Love,
coastal resources administrator for the Louisiana Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries.
The brown pelican is particularly at risk because it dives
beneath the water's surface to forage. Not only could pelicans eat
tainted fish and feed it to their young, but their feathers could
become oil-soaked, causing hypothermia or drowning.
Also in harm's way are at least 12 Gulf species listed by the
federal government as endangered or threatened, including birds,
sea turtles and the sperm whale.
Officials say they don't know the death toll from the spill,
although state wildlife veterinarian James LaCour said 10
oil-soaked bird carcasses have been found in Louisiana. A total of
154 sea turtles, most identified as the endangered Kemp's ridley
variety, and 12 dolphins have washed ashore in recent weeks, but
it's unknown whether oil killed them.
Three oily brown pelicans have been found alive. Two other
pelicans have turned up dead, but the cause is uncertain.
Another danger: The oil could kill vegetation that anchors the
marshy islands where many pelicans nest, hastening erosion that has
already rendered some of their former habitat unsuitable.
Biologists say it will take months or years to assess the damage
to wildlife, and caution against underestimating it because no
massive die-offs have taken place. Many fish and birds may be
avoiding the oil slick, but that will become harder if it reaches
coastal marshlands where a multitude of creatures spawn, nest and
feed.
Federal scientists are watching vulnerable species for signs of
distress. Of particular interest is the brown pelican, thousands of
which were slaughtered a century ago by hunters who coveted its
plumage and commercial fishermen who believed pelicans were
gobbling too many fish.
They nearly went extinct in the 1960s. Eating fish contaminated
with the pesticide DDT caused them to lay eggs with thin shells
that broke under mother birds' weight during incubation. After the
chemical was banned in 1972, they bounced back and now total about
650,000 worldwide, including 400,000 in Peru.
The estimated population in the northern Gulf region is about
40,000.
"They're still just clinging to existence," said David Ringer,
a National Audubon Society spokesman as he watched crews lay
protective boom around small islands in the path of the oil slick.
Pelican Island, so named because so many of them once nested
there, was awash in birds - royal terns, black skimmers, laughing
gulls and many more. But only a couple of brown pelicans could be
seen, gliding just above the water's surface in their constant hunt
for fish.
The roughly 10-acre islet has shrunk by about 50 percent over
the past decade. Like other coastal wetlands, it is eroding from
storms and rising sea levels, while levees prevent the Mississippi
River from depositing fresh sediment.
Brown pelicans seek elevated spots with short grasses for
nesting. When they washed away, the birds abandoned Pelican Island
for other places - some of which are eroding as well, and the pace
may quicken if oil kills vegetation holding sediment in place.
"It could be the strikeout punch," said Gregory Butcher, bird
conservation director for the Audubon Society.
Despite their gangly appearance - their long necks, stubby legs
and wingspans that often exceed 7 feet prompted Butcher to jokingly
liken them to to B-52s - they are nature's perfect anglers, winging
above the sea with keen eyes seeking schools of menhaden or
minnows. They suddenly plunge and emerge with huge mouthfuls,
straining out water through the pouches beneath their bills.
The pelicans might ingest enough oil to sicken or kill them,
depending on the amount, said Wes Tunnell, coastal ecology and oil
spill expert at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Oil also
causes matted plumage, making it harder to stay afloat when they
rest on the water's surface and boosting the risk of hypothermia.
If oil coats the waters around islands and marshes, it could
cause prey fish numbers to plummet, said Aaron Pierce, a shore bird
specialist at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La.
"Even if the pelicans can avoid the sheen, they must be able to
forage within a reasonable distance to keep their chicks alive,"
said biologist Paul Leberg of the University of Louisiana at
Lafayette. "We've been very lucky the oil has stayed so far
offshore."
Some advocates want the government to return the pelicans to the
endangered species list. But scientists generally say it's too
early to decide, and Philip Kloer, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, said re-listing is not being considered for
now.
Scott Walter, a Louisiana-Lafayette wildlife biologist studying
brown pelicans on Gulf barrier islands, said he will try to
determine how the oil spill affects their reproduction.
Restoring their endangered status, Walter said, might become
necessary if food contamination and habitat loss cause a population
crash.
"They're in a very precarious position," he said.

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