Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative sheds light on critical habitat

Alternative habitat in wake of oil spill contributes to future coastal programs


Photo © Michael Furtman

The deadly oil spill from British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico had Ducks Unlimited waterfowl biologists fearing the worst possible scenario – potentially millions of barrels of crude oil washing into an already threatened marsh habitat along Louisiana's Coast. Marshes along Louisiana and Texas coasts provide wintering habitat for millions of waterfowl. If those habitats were inundated with oil, the area would become unsuitable for waterfowl and migratory birds. As a precautionary measure, DU along with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, developed a plan to create alternative habitat in the region. The result: the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation kick-started DU's MBHI efforts with a $2.5 million grant that provided funding to enhance 20,000 acres. The grant money was provided from BP through the sale of the oil recovered from the Deepwater Horizon spill. As DU biologists and conservation managers in the region began focusing on flooding areas near the coast, it become apparent DU was going to be able to stretch these dollars further than expected. The originally planned 20,000 acres of migratory bird habitat ended up being a whopping 79,000 acres of enhanced habitat throughout the Louisiana and Texas coasts.

"The overall goal was to offset potential impacts by creating alternative habitats for waterfowl, shore birds and wading birds," explains Bob Dew, DU manager of conservation programs in Louisiana. "Many of these areas were flooded in August and September, providing excellent habitat for early-arriving blue-winged teal and pintails." The bird's response to these areas was greater than expected. While the coastal marshes avoided the potentially devastating impacts; the MBHI program brought a lot of attention to habitat in the region. 

"The program really shined a light on this habitat's importance," Dew says. "It also allowed our partners in the USDA to recognize how migratory birds benefit from these conservation programs, and how they can impact the area."

While the MBHI program was designed to lessen the oil spill's impacts on wintering waterfowl, it has offered a glimpse of how conservation programs in this region can play a crucial role in revitalizing a threatened ecosystem. Dew and other DU scientists feel that as a secondary benefit; the program will create greater conservation awareness in the region.

Dew explained that because of last year's successful program, the USDA is now looking at making these practices available in the future. In a region that loses a football field of habitat every 38 minutes, the MBHI program has proven itself to be an invaluable asset.

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