Effort to protect birds in spill zone exceeds expectations

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WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced a coordinated effort with landowners across eight states to protect and feed birds migrating toward the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill zone in the Gulf of Mexico had more than tripled expectations, enrolling more than 470,000 acres.

Wildlife experts estimate more than 50 million birds migrate through the Mississippi, Central and Eastern Flyways each fall and spring.

“Private landowners play a critically important role in protecting wildlife every single day, and I am proud that so many landowners in these eight states stepped up to be a part of this unprecedented effort to increase migratory bird habitat and protect wildlife from any lingering effects from the oil spill,” Vilsack said.

Origin

The Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative is an unprecedented effort created by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that began June 28, when oil was still spilling from the Deepwater Horizon well.

The initiative mobilized private landowners to help create alternative and additional habitats to provide healthy food and resting areas for shorebirds, waterfowl and other birds headed for the Gulf.

The initial goal was to enroll 150,000 acres. After landowners expressed extremely strong interest in the program, funding was doubled to $40 million, enabling enrollment to reach a total over three times the initial goal.

The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting similar work primarily on Federal lands adjacent to the spill impact zone in order to minimize potential bird contact with contaminated areas and help address long term objectives for habitat conservation along the entire Gulf Coast.

Funding

Much of the work has been funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Recovered Oil Fund, as well as other privately donated funds.

“Providing additional food and nesting opportunities for migrating waterfowl and songbirds heading south during the fall migration is an important part of our collective effort to minimize injury to migrating birds by creating alternative habitats north of the impacted wintering and stopover habitats along the coast,” said Salazar.

The 470,000 acres under contract with this initiative are within the three flyways that pass through the Gulf of Mexico.

Process

These lands in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas are being flooded carefully with varying water levels and planted with a variety of vegetation to provide food and habitat for the wide range of bird species that might stop to refuel.

Early feedback from participants indicates that a variety of birds are using the enhanced habitat, including sandpipers, blue-winged teal, mottled ducks and many others.

Although the MBHI initiative was initially created in response to the oil spill, landowners are providing food at a critical time. Current drought conditions in the Gulf region combined with decades of wetland losses are resulting in fewer food resources and habitat compared with previous years.

In Louisiana, where the bulk of oil landfall occurred, water levels in marshes are significantly below average. Currently, the FWS is calculating the number of oiled acres impacting available food and habitat for migratory birds as part of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process.

This is an action taken after every spill to quantify the environmental damages and the cost to restore natural resources to pre-spill conditions.

Tracking progress

NRCS has started working on a three-year effort with other entities, including Mississippi State University, to determine the initiative’s effectiveness through monitoring the number and species of birds which utilize the habitat created. The first progress report will be available in spring 2011.

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