Northern waterfowl could be sitting ducks in gulf disaster

MINNEAPOLIS — In two months, blue-winged teal will begin leaving Minnesota for the coastal marshes of Louisiana and other points south. Within weeks afterward, wood ducks will join the autumn migration, followed by many of the other duck species that nest in the North but spend their winter months along the Gulf Coast.

What exactly awaits these birds is unknown. But for the 13 million ducks and another 1.5 million geese that historically have used Louisiana’s coastal marshes either for the entire winter or a portion thereof, it likely won’t be good.

Worst-case scenario:

Oil continues to flow from BP’s deepwater well off the coast of Louisiana, and tropical storms and perhaps hurricanes this summer and/or early fall would push the crude not only into barrier saltwater and brackish marshes, but also farther inland, into freshwater marshes and ponds.

This would kill not only ducks and other birds, but despoil crucial habitats, perhaps for generations.

Worse, it’s possible that oil flowing from the well won’t be staunched for many months. Or even, as was the case in Mexico in 1979, for up to a year.

If so, thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even more — of ducks, geese and other migrants, including shorebirds, could be killed this fall.

Already, North America is not exactly flush with ducks. In fact, if many hunters and others who spend long days in the field in autumn can be believed, the United States and Canada host far smaller populations of ducks today than was the case even 15 years ago.

But what if circumstances surrounding BP’s oil well improve significantly, and quickly?

Perhaps, for example, the well will soon be capped or its oil otherwise collected, and instead of coming ashore, most of the oil already on the Gulf’s surface will stay farther at sea, dissipating, over time, either (somewhat) naturally or due to chemical dispersants.

Even if that occurs, some damage already has been done to the nation’s richest and most productive coastal wetlands. And wildlife — particularly marine life — likely will be adversely affected for some time. As will countless local residents and their livelihoods.

What then to do now? Should vast, new temporary habitats be developed near the Gulf Coast, if possible, as a way to lure birds from oil stained marshes?

Should state and federal waterfowl officials attempt to “short-stop” Mississippi Flyway ducks in Missouri, Arkansas, northern Mississippi and northern Louisiana, by feeding them?

Should waterfowlers in those areas be asked to forego hunting this fall, in an attempt to keep birds north of the Gulf Coast?

Hard to tell.

But there is time to discuss various scenarios and devise contingency plans. And if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and other groups don’t begin to do so immediately, they are forgoing their responsibility not only to their supporters, financial and otherwise, but, especially, to ducks and geese.

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Top Ducks Unlimited officials, including new CEO Dale Hall and chief biologist Dale Humburg, recently toured parts of the Louisiana marsh, guided by Louisiana wildlife and fisheries officials.

Last week, I talked to Humburg in Louisiana via cell phone while he and others were still in the marsh, wrapping up their trip.

“Our primary intent over the last couple of days has been to get a handle on the scale of the issue, that is, the size of the landscape that could be affected by the spill,” Humburg said. “We also wanted to determine what is real in terms of immediate impact, and some idea of what the impact could be, if things get worse.

“What we ended up with is a high degree of uncertainty. Unfortunately, until the oil is contained, we won’t know the extent of the problem. And without an idea of the extent and the distribution of the oil, we won’t know what the response should be.”

So far, Humburg said, oil coming ashore on the coastal marshes generally has been limited to saltwater marshes on the open Gulf, with minimal impact to date on freshwater or brackish areas.

Species of special concern, given conditions that exist today, would be scaup (bluebills) and redheads, both of which have tended in recent years to raft up in vast flocks in the Gulf of Mexico — in areas that already are contaminated with oil.

Mallards, though in places abundant, are not overly common in many areas of coastal Louisiana. Instead, teal, gadwall and widgeon (the latter two often are grouped as “gray ducks” by Louisiana hunters) are common species, as are ringnecks and pintails in areas.

Humburg said one option being considered is expanding the amount of flooded acreage on the northern edge of the marsh. This would begin to address the deficit of habitat that already exists in the region.

“The challenges of coastal marsh deterioration have taken decades to develop and will take years to address effectively,” he said, adding that the oil spill brings immediate focus to a waterfowl and wetlands conservation challenge that has existed for some time.

“We spent an hour in a boat getting to the edge of the Gulf (of Mexico), and what a trip like that does is give you a pretty good dose of reality regarding the scale of the challenge, and the scale also of the response that might be needed to make a difference,” Humburg said.

Asked whether it might be possible to shortstop some birds in Missouri, Arkansas, northern Mississippi and northern Louisiana by feeding them and by abstaining from hunting, Humburg said such actions might have a local and perhaps regional effect.

“But these would be short-term impacts,” he said, “and I suspect that they and similar actions might imply we have more control over the migration than we actually do. The fact is, when days shorten in fall, the weather turns cold up north and food becomes scarce, ducks migrate. And always have.”

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I’ll add here a few additional “doses of reality” that should disquiet anyone concerned with ducks and this latest threat to them:

— Waterfowl management in this nation, as led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is chaotic, at best, with competition among states for “their share” of the resource more often the case than cooperation.

— The Fish and Wildlife Service’s duck harvest scheme is steeped in mystery and technical mumbo jumbo that few understand but that somehow always favors the highest possible limits and the most days afield. This despite near universal acknowledgement of a still-declining North American habitat base and countless reports from hunters (as above) that ducks are scarce, if not (in many regions, such as Minnesota) altogether gone missing.

— In the management of U.S. ducks and duck hunting, politics traditionally have played as big a role as science.

Given these realities and the potential they imply for institutional inaction, obfuscation or both, concerned waterfowlers and their state and congressional representatives should demand immediately that the Fish and Wildlife Service and its Mississippi Flyway Council begin without further delay a series of meetings to explore all contingencies for the fall migration that is only a short time distant.

Waterfowlers and others should demand as well that all options (including hunting and not hunting) should be on the table, meaning that no choice that might benefit waterfowl should be precluded from consideration.

Especially important to all concerned should be an awareness that nonhunters as well as hunters will be watching how duck managers respond, especially given that they have the advantage in this foul-up (that marine life managers did not) of acting before any actual crisis occurs to their species of concern.

Finally, DU and other waterfowl groups should — if necessary, and if potentially effective — consider amassing thousands upon thousands of volunteers from throughout the nation along the Gulf Coast to help clean birds, vegetation and water, if it comes to that.

Such an effort would be the right thing to do.

Not incidentally, it likely also would gain the groups many new members among a skeptical American public that increasingly disbelieves that any institution — government, especially — actually does what it claims to do.

Dennis Anderson/Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)