Marshall: Oil and Waterfowl Don't Mix

It's safe to say that before BP's runaway oil well began pumping a river of crude into the Gulf, most Americans--even her sportsmen--didn't understand the far-reaching role Louisiana' coastal estuaries play in the larger continental ecosystem. But the actions being contemplated by federal wildlife agencies in advance of the fall migration period should give them some indication.

The feds are gearing up to spend tens of millions of dollars to help steer migrating birds away from the polluted zones. Take a look at our previous Field Notes coverage.

In many years, more than 13 million migrating ducks and geese winter or visit the state's coastal wetlands. Dabbling ducks like teal, gadwall, mallards, and pintail flood the interior marshes; millions of divers like scaup, redheads, and canvasback are found in coastal bays and river deltas. And tens of millions of neo-tropical migrants use the state's coastal habitats each year as well.

That's why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with protecting and managing migratory birds, is very worried. Obviously the divers could end up looking like those oiled pelicans everyone has now become familiar with. But the dabblers are not out of danger, either. Paul Schmidt, FWS Assistant Director for Migratory Birds, says the worst-case scenario would be a one-two punch:

The first would find hurricane storm surges this summer pushing waves of oil deep into interior marshes, polluting dabbling habitat.

The second would be an early and hard winter up north pushing birds south into those oiled areas. To fight these threats the USFWS is mounting efforts to protect the list of national wildlife refuges managed for waterfowl. Enhanced booming and clean-up, as well as some water control work is underway. And the agency is also hoping enhancing feeding opportunities in refuges north of the coast can keep birds away.

Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will spend up to $20 million to pay farmers in the lower Mississippi valley to flood agriculture fields, an effort that could short-stop wintering birds far from the oiled coast.

But Schmidt admits all those efforts will still play second fiddle to the one factor that always control waterfowl movement: Weather.

Waterfowl can't read the newspapers warnings, so they'll head south on any serious cold front. Turns out that oil in the Gulf could have a big impact on waterfowlers living a thousand miles away.