Minnesota officials ponder how to protect state bird from perils of Gulf oil spill

Common Loon
fws.gov

For Minnesotans, the common loon probably evokes an image of something pristine, a crystalline lake, perhaps, or a fog-shrouded waterway. We equate it with a healthy ecosystem.

Our iconic state bird also is likely one of the next casualties of the Gulf oil spill, along with hundreds of thousands of other waterfowl that summer here but winter in the South. The birds are particularly drawn to the exact same marshy portions of the coasts of Louisiana and Florida where oil is washing up on beaches.

Compounding the urgency of the problem, although summer officially may be just a few days old, the fall migration is just around the corner for lots of birds. Next week, for instance, Minnesota’s spotted sandpipers will begin their annual fall migration south. When they get there, they may or may not find sanctuary.

“The 13 million birds that live in the Gulf every fall and winter may have nowhere to go home to,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said this morning. “It’s not just one pelican that’s drenched in oil hobbling on the beach. This is a long-term problem.”

The senator spoke at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, where she hosted a meeting with local wildlife management officials who are working to mitigate the effect of the spill on Minnesota waterfowl.

Tracking oil spill costs
Those efforts include drawing on population studies and other data to determine which migratory birds are most at risk, developing alternative habitats and tracking costs so claims can be lodged against BP, owner of the offshore rig that exploded in May.

“We’re quite helpless here because all the actions are happening in the Gulf,” said Carrol Henderson, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Wildlife Program.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

“At first when we heard about the oil spill, it was far, far away,” Henderson said. “But then it became apparent that it was our problem, too.”

Minnesota’s efforts are best focused on the long term, he and the other wildlife officials at the meeting agreed. There’s simply not much that can be done from here to address the most urgent problem, said John Christian, assistant regional director for migratory birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 3.

Nor is saving individual birds the way out of the crisis, he and others present said. So far, the federal agency has recovered 1,812 migratory birds. Only 766 were alive, and just 156 have been rehabilitated and released.

“The best thing we can do for migratory birds is to stop the spill and restore the beaches,” said Christian. In addition to loons, osprey, egrets and ducks, the Gulf is the winter home of 38 endangered species, he added, including whooping cranes and piping plovers.

Loons breed here, but after their first migration, hatchlings stay in the Gulf for two years. So we may not know for several years whether entire generations have been affected.

Drawing on volunteers, the DNR has long conducted an annual loon count. The population has been stable for many years, Henderson said, but he’s concerned that the spill’s true effect on the state bird won’t be known for some time.

Groups hope to create alternative habitats
Fish and Wildlife and several private, nonprofits, including Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society, both of which were represented at today’s meeting, hope to establish alternative habitats for migratory waterfowl. The idea is to provide a food-rich environment for the birds to turn to if the oil kills the aquatic vegetation in their usual home.

In some cases, dry coastal areas may be flooded to create wetlands. Agricultural areas, and in particular rice farms, can also provide good alternative habitats for the birds.

“When food disappears, waterfowl will go elsewhere,” explained Ryan Heiniger, director of conservation programs in Minnesota and Iowa for Ducks Unlimited. “The big question is what happens when it’s an area that’s been so dependable for hundreds and thousands of years. What’s the impact of that?”

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the images of oil-soaked wildlife have trained the public’s attention on the fact that even before the spill, Gulf habitats were endangered, officials noted. Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field of wetlands to erosion every 30 minutes, for instance.

“Our migratory birds are already under stress, and this adds insult to injury,” Christian added.

For her part, Klobuchar said she is pleased that BP has put $20 billion in escrow for cleanup and recovery claims. Because wildlife advocates won’t have to lobby for funding, it will be easier to keep their needs atop the agenda when the cleanup starts, she said.

Along with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the senator toured the region about a month ago, when it was still thought that the leak could be stopped relatively quickly. As she looked at the orange plume of contaminated water, Klobuchar said, “I remember feeling that this is not the end of this, and that it was going to be very, very hard to fix.”

Klobuchar told the group that she plans to address the topic in a Senate speech next week.

“I think we all know what went wrong here,” she said. “This is the worst [environmental] disaster we’ve seen in this country.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.

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