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Since April 20th, events in the Gulf of Mexico have been driven by the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and subsequent oil spill. The impact of that disaster has now reached as far as North Dakota as U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff members are tapped for duty.
Since April 20th, events in the
Fire management officer Doug Downs, stationed at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge near Kenmare, was the first of what may become several area USFWS personnel to take an assignment on the
Downs was sent to
Other USFWS employees from across the country were also called to the scene, including firefighters like
The federal agency set up a bird rescue and recovery plan in conjunction with British Petroleum, owner of the destroyed oil well. Downs said that residents all along the
The crews spend much time walking the beaches, shoreline and marshes of the coast, looking for specific birds reported by individuals, with about 20 to 25 calls coming each day. “We covered an area from the Biloxi-Gulfport region in
Many residents seemed to be learning about the Gulf’s birds, as reports were made about everything from molting mallard drakes, whose brown feathers appeared oil-covered when they actually weren’t, to the famed brown pelicans whose existence as a species is now threatened by the spill. “Most of the calls were false alarms for everybody,”
When Downs landed in
Within a couple of days, the oil was noticeable. “And by the time I left, you’d see tar balls or even mats of oil washed up on the beaches,” said
He noted that barrier islands off the coast of
The bird recovery crews began their work immediately after
USFWS personnel were operating those receiving centers, which included several refrigeration trucks to store the carcasses.
Live birds caught by the crews were transported to recovery centers operated by contractors hired by BP. “There were some volunteers doing bird clean-up,”
Birds that were cleaned and deemed otherwise healthy were later released into areas not contaminated with oil, although
“There’s still oil gushing out of that well,” he said when he returned. “That’s 50 days so far, which means even if they capped it now there would be oil washing ashore for another 50 days. I think it’s going to have a pretty big effect on everything in the Gulf.”
He described the local residents as friendly and cooperative toward the USFWS crews that moved in to work. “They mostly seemed happy with us,” he said. “They complained a lot about BP. Some of them are pretty worried.”
He agreed they had cause to be worried, given the matrix of marshes and beaches that support a rich diversity of wildlife and attract tourists. “Look at
Those globs of oil are not good for wildlife, either, with Gulf citizens and federal personnel sharing worries about the consequences to sea turtles, marine mammals, and crabs, shrimp and other seafood species, along with the birds.
“Anything that sits out in that water is going to be affected,” said
USFWS staff also discussed the potential problems for bird species that migrated north before the Deepwater Horizon incident. “They think the impact from this will continue through at least the next year, as some of the birds come back to this area in the wintertime,” said
He added that the bulk of the oil is currently located at the bottom of the Mississippi Flyway. “Most of our waterfowl stays west of there, in the Central Flyway,” he said. “The oil spill is not moving west much right now, but that depends on currents and storms in the next few months.”
However, he expected to return to the region throughout the next year. In fact, at least two other staff members at the Des Lacs NWR have made themselves available for work assignments in the Gulf.
“I think there are going to be a lot of people who get a chance to go,”
He also recognized problems looming for the bird rescue crews, given the magnitude of the oil spill. “Eventually, there’s going to be oil all over the Gulf Coast, and we’ll run out of places to release the [rescued] birds,” he said. “It seems like we’re spending a lot of money on every bird, but then you look at the pelicans, which were endangered down there not too long ago. Do we let them go extinct?”