Q&A: Delta Scientific Director Discusses Plan to ‘Shortstop’ Migratory Waterfowl from Oil-fouled Wetlands
Posted on 08/05/2010
BP’s Macondo well is capped—at least for now—and that’s welcome relief to Gulf Coast residents who are grappling with the economic, environmental and emotional fallout from the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
But serious questions remain for the millions of migratory birds that will begin descending on or through the Gulf Coast beginning this month.
“The fact is, when blue-winged teal start to show up here in August, no one knows what they’re going to find,” said Delta Waterfowl Scientific Director Dr. Frank Rohwer, who is also a professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Renewable Natural Resources. “We’re in unchartered territory.”
Over the last several weeks, two complimentary plans have emerged to “shortstop” ducks, geese and other migratory birds from oil-contaminated portions of the Gulf Coast.
In what has been characterized as an unprecedented attempt to alter migration routes, the federal government is spending more than $20 million on “alternative habitat” in eight states to attract southward-bound birds. The Natural Resources Conservation Service—an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—will establish as much as 150,000 acres in states as far north as Missouri.
In addition, Ducks Unlimited recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The funds are being used to “flood alternative habitats” in the rice regions of coastal Louisiana and Texas.
In the following Q&A, Dr. Rohwer weighs in on the short-stopping question, whether “hazing” birds from oil-contaminated areas is worth a try, and why he believes a season closure is a bad idea.
The federal government and others are attempting to “shortstop” ducks during the migration to keep them out of the oil in coastal Louisiana. Can this well-intentioned multi-million dollar idea work on a meaningful scale? Can such an effort impact duck distribution?
I’m quite skeptical that such a program will work to keep ducks out of coastal areas in Louisiana, where all of us are concerned about birds being exposed to oil.
Remember last year during the winter we had extraordinarily wet conditions throughout Arkansas, Mississippi, southern Missouri and northern Louisiana. Those conditions provided thousands of acres of freshly flooded habitat. Even with those extraordinary habitat conditions ducks were still using Louisiana’s coastal marshes in numbers comparable to the five-year average. So I’m doubtful that the proposed efforts can have a big impact on duck distribution.
Finally, I wonder if anyone thought much about duck hunters before they initiated this plan. Suppose I’m wrong and we can shortstop ducks. It would be ironic that in a year when Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastal hunters will likely struggle to find places to hunt, we would make the hunting situation worse for them. For the guys north of the oil frontline — that is, the majority of Louisiana hunters — it will be especially frustrating if shortstopping works because they will see fewer ducks in their decoys this fall.
Are some ducks species faithful to the same wintering areas year after year and generation after generation?
It is the rule that migratory birds go to traditional areas to spend the winter. That also applies to most ducks. There are a few ducks, especially mallards, that stay as far north as they can until freezing weather and a lack of food push them to migrate south. That, however, is more the exception rather than the rule. We often have ducks showing up in Louisiana in August and September, long before northern weather would move birds. In the past 25 years we have learned that some of the bay and sea ducks show remarkable homing to the exact same sites to spend the winter. That may also occur with dabbling ducks, but researchers just have not examined how precisely individual ducks return to wintering sites.
Scaup, canvasbacks and other diving ducks winter in the Gulf’s coastal bays where the current risk of oiling is most serious. Can we shortstop divers?
This is very unlikely. From what I’ve read, the incentives programs are all about flooding grain fields, especially rice and other shallow wetland habitat. That will have no impact on those three species of divers, which are probably the most at-risk species because they predominantly use those outer coastal bays where the near-shore oil has been a real problem.
Are there any other approaches that can be put in play to minimize birds coming in contact with oiled areas?
Yes, the USDA and others have a long history of using disturbance techniques (often called hazing) on certain bird species to alter bird distribution.
The compelling thing about hazing is that the technique would be very focused, because we would haze birds only where there’s a problem with oil contamination. Hazing also has a record of working — we know we can disturb ducks and move them out of an area. Hazing isn’t as easy as it may sound, but it sure can work.
Hazing operations can also mobilize fairly quickly. Remember, Louisiana has a lot of out-of-work watermen, thanks to the Horizon incident, and we could use them to target sites that continue to have oil and settling ducks.
Hazing should be a priority moving forward. Its focus would be narrow because we’d only be targeting at-risk ducks in the most impacted areas
Some have discussed closing the duck season over fears of a major duck die-off in the Gulf. What’s your reaction to that idea?
Nonsense. I like the idea that hunters were the first to offer up this idea, because they really care about the long-term welfare of the resource. However, I strongly dislike this idea for three very different reasons.
First, some philosophy. It would gall me that hunters have to sacrifice because of BP’s mistakes.
Second, some biology. This idea of closing seasons or reducing limits is squarely resting on the idea that our modest harvest levels have a long-term impact on the size of duck populations. That is a very questionable. In North America we build so much safety into our hunting regulations that we stand little chance of seeing any population-level impact to even a relatively large oil kill.
Finally, some practicality. Closing or reducing seasons presupposes substantial mortality due to oil. I seriously doubt there will be much oil-related duck mortality. If I’m wrong and the Horizon oil spill does kill lots of ducks, the time to alter seasons or limits would be next year. For example, if the 2011 federal duck survey suggests that canvasback numbers are way down, then we might respond by reducing limits or having a species closure. Let’s not presuppose a problem that may never materialize.