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What the Gulf Oil Spill Means to Waterfowlers

As your read this, a plethora of migrating waterfowl species are heading to the oil-stricken Gulf Coast. What will be their fate?

9/13/2010

Normally this is the time of year when duck hunters anticipate the “Grand Passage,” waterfowl’s southerly migration when about 13 million ducks go to the Gulf region for the winter; however, as a result of the Gulf oil spill, this is no typical year. The focus isn’t on how many ducks are headed south, but how many will return north. About 25 percent of the ducks in North America winter in the Gulf Coast region, and they’ll begin arriving this month.

So what will become of our beloved waterfowl populations, and what does that spell for the future of duck hunting? We won’t have all the answers until after the ducks arrive, but here’s what we do know.

Ducks at Risk
Biologists’ greatest concern is for diving ducks, especially scaup, but also for redheads and canvasbacks. Divers feed in offshore areas and saltwater bays, making them far more likely than dabblers to come in direct contact with oil. More than 4 million divers are thought to winter in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We don’t know if oil will be present when the scaup arrive in mid-November, but if it is, then they stand a big risk of being oiled, and that’s usually a death sentence,” said Dr. Tom Moorman, head of Ducks Unlimited’s Gulf Coast Response Team. “The other thing we’re worried about is the health of dwarf surf clams, which scaup are believed to eat while offshore. We’re concerned the oil could kill the clams or cause them to become toxic to ducks.”

At press time the inland freshwater marshes frequented by puddle ducks have been shielded from oil by less important waterfowl habitats—barrier islands, and salt and brackish marsh vegetation. If that situation holds, dabblers are probably safe, but if a hurricane with the intensity of a Katrina strikes, all bets are off, as a tidal surge could push oil into critical marsh habitat, putting blue- and green-winged teal, pintails, wood ducks, gadwalls and wigeon (few mallards use the coastal marshes) at risk.

“That would mean real problems, especially if it hit southwest Louisiana, which has the highest population of ducks per unit of marsh,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl’s scientific director. “And in some ways the Texas coast is even more fragile and susceptible to oiling because it’s so narrow.”

Will Hunting Be Affected?
At press time the USFWS had no plans to alter bag limits or season dates, a decision that garnered widespread support from biologists.

“I think it would be dreadful to lower bag limits or shorten seasons due to the spill,” said Rohwer. “The decision would be based on the theory that hunter-harvest impacts overall duck populations, and we know that not to be true. Bag limits should be set based on biology and the reality of the situation, not public relations.”

There could be local hunting closures in areas directly impacted by oil to protect hunters’ health and allow cleanup crews to work. Such a scenario is most likely to unfold in Louisiana where a few important public hunting areas, including the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the Biloxi Marsh WMA and the Delta National Wildlife Refuge already have oil around their perimeter vegetation. At press time the oil had not penetrated their interior ponds.

“Though officials might not close hunting in those areas, hunters won’t want to hunt in areas with oil,” said Moorman. “It smells and you won’t want your dog in it.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has, however, considered closing hunting in “sanctuary areas.” Under the proposal, certain federal lands and refuges would temporarily suspend hunting to provide the ducks an oil-free place to rest and feed

“If we move forward with sanctuary areas, it would be on a case-by-case, local basis rather than being a regional or national decision,” said Paul Schmidt, USFWS assistant director for migratory birds. “We recognize that hunting is part of the Gulf Coast’s culture and recreational environment, and the ducks also adapt well and will continue to adapt well to hunting.” Schmidt added that it’s also “very unlikely” that oil-related duck mortality will be high enough to affect 2011-2012 regulations.

So, according to wildlife officials, we won’t see any large-scale changes to hunting regulations for the 2010 season.

Emergency Food for Ducks
One aspect of the USFWS’ oil-response plan calls for supplying feeding areas well north of the spill in hopes that some ducks will “short stop,” or winter north of their traditional grounds. Ducks Unlimited (DU) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) have pitched in with the effort. Ducks have been known to “short stop” when adequate food and open water are available, but it would require a substantial operation to achieve this behavior artificially. Overall the federal government is spending $20 million on 150,000 acres of “alternative habitat” across eight states. Southern duck hunters have expressed concern that “short-stopping” ducks will ruin their season; however, migrations are so tied to weather conditions that it’s doubtful the venture will have a measurable impact.

“By and large I don’t think an effort to short stop the ducks can be effective,” said Rohwer.Closer to the spill area, the USFWS and DU have undertaken efforts to provide additional food and habitat in hopes of diverting ducks from oiled areas. For instance, DU has flooded 20,000 acres in the rice region of Texas and Louisiana; though the USFWS and DU acknowledge that the inland food they’re providing is unfortunately of little benefit to divers.

“There’s just not anything anybody can think of to do for scaup,” said Moorman. “Some folks have thought about flooding catfish farms, which used to hold a lot of scaup, but delivering habitat on a scale that will impact the scaup population is really hard.”

The Long-Term Effects

The biggest long-term threat to ducks posed by the oil is its potential to exacerbate losses of marsh habitat. Historically the Mississippi River replenished the marshes with fresh sediment.

Today the river is heavily dammed, which is good for nearby homeowners but bad for ducks (DU has long advocated for a change). Now when wind and waves erode the marsh, the sediment losses are permanent. And if a hurricane pushes oil into the marshes, vegetation will likely die, leaving the soil even more susceptible to erosion.

“The health of the marshes and the coastal ecosystem is our number one long-term concern,” said Schmidt. “It’s a stressed environment already, and we are worried about the availability of food for waterfowl and all migratory birds.”

Ducks Should Bounce Back
Even if the oil kills a moderate to high number of ducks, most species would likely recover quickly.

“For scaup, it could be dicey,” said Rohwer, “but redhead and canvasback populations have been remarkably stable and, given good breeding-ground conditions, in a year or two I suspect you’d never know the difference.”

Rohwer’s sentiments were echoed by his colleague, Tori McCormick, communications director for Delta Waterfowl. “Are we going to lose some ducks? Probably,” he said. “But most ducks will make it back to their breeding grounds, and as long as those breeding grounds are maintained and the predators are kept in check, the ducks will bounce back.”

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