In a first-ever attempt to alter migration routes, the federal government plans to spend more than $20 million this month to keep millions of birds that fly south every winter out of oil-fouled wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico.
The birds targeted for help include many that Minnesotans see every day: mallards to great blue herons, wood ducks to great egrets. Left unaided by the wetland effort will be the state bird, the loon, which spends winters on the open waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean.
Acting in a time frame that belies the speed at which government typically moves, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) -- part of the U.S. Agriculture Department -- will establish alternative habitats in eight states, as far north as Missouri, where as many as 30,000 acres of new habitat are expected to be developed.
But whether any birds will be saved from an oil-drenched death this fall and winter is unknown. "I've heard all sides, both that this won't make much of a difference, and also that if we establish habitat all the way up in Missouri, we'll shortstop the birds and they won't come farther south," said Leslie Deavers of the NRCS in Washington. "We don't know exactly what will happen. Our aim is to provide as much habitat as possible."
An estimated 13 million ducks and geese winter in the coastal wetlands of Louisiana or pass through en route to points farther south. Millions of additional shorebirds and other migrants also wing along the Mississippi Flyway.
Among these are certain species of plovers and terns that will arrive along the coast as early as this month. And blue-winged teal, a duck species that nests in Minnesota, will migrate to Louisiana beginning in August.
Those species -- along with the tens of millions of other game and non-game birds that will fly south as late as December -- are headed toward an uncertain fate. A lot will depend on when the oil blowout is capped, and whether hurricanes push sticky crude into the sensitive coastal marshes that extend along Louisiana's more than 7,000 miles of Gulf shoreline.
"What we're doing has never been tried before," said J.R. Flores, NRCS state conservationist in Missouri. "I think it has a good chance of helping. If we don't try something, and the situation worsens in the Gulf, what's going to happen to the birds?"
The NRCS program will dovetail with a similar, though smaller and geographically more concentrated effort by the wetlands conservation organization Ducks Unlimited (DU).
That group recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and is using the money to share habitat construction costs with the NRCS along the Gulf in western Louisiana and east Texas.
"To be honest, there was a lot of wrangling over the scope of the NRCS program," said Jerry Holden of Ducks Unlimited in Louisiana. Holden would have preferred more of the NRCS money, if not most of it, be spent closer to the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's not that habitat put in Missouri or Mississippi or Arkansas is a bad thing," Holden said. "And it's not about short-stopping ducks, because we don't believe you can stop them from continuing their migrations. Instead, this year the priority is oil in the Gulf, and when you are trying to keep birds out of the oil, proximity matters. You want to have the additional food and habitat as close to the oil as possible."
Much of the South's first rice crop will be harvested later this month, Holden said. Farmers interested in participating in the NRCS or DU programs will be paid to re-flood their rice fields or in other ways create shallow-water habitat.
Many factors involved
Owners of retired catfish ponds and similar landscapes also are encouraged to participate, said Deavers of the NRCS, which will attempt to monitor if birds are using the newly established habitat, and how.
But Dale Humburg, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited in Memphis, is unsure to what degree -- or even whether -- the new habitat will influence the overall migration.
"From year to year, in spring and fall, there are incredible variations in weather and habitat that affect migrations," Humburg said. "The scale at which habitat can be established this year, measured against the broad scale of other factors that will influence the migration will, in my opinion, make it pretty difficult to detect any difference that specific habitat programs will make."
The only way to make a real difference for migrating birds in the South, Humburg said, is to improve Louisiana's Gulf Coast freshwater marshes by creating water-control and similar structures, and by diverting additional freshwater from the Mississippi River into a broad swath of those wetlands.
A big experiment
"We've never seen anything like this and it will definitely be a learning experience,'' said Paul Schmidt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director for migratory birds, stationed in Washington.
"Do I think we can significantly alter migration patterns?'' Schmidt added. "No, I don't. But I think we can do some good habitat work in areas that are needing it, at a time when birds are going to be potentially at risk and exposed. The alternative is to sit by and watch and do nothing.''
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424