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20 National Wildlife Refuges threatened by Louisiana oil spill

04/05/2010 10:09:00

Manatee may suffer as they migrate to their summer waters. Credit FWC

USFWS response to the Louisiana oil spill

May 2010. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is very concerned for the fragile wildlife of the Gulf coast. With as many as 20 National Wildlife refuges threatened by the oil spill, and rare and endangered species such as sea turtles, manatee, sea birds (including brown pelicans) and Gulf sturgeon all in danger, they have launched a series of measures to try to mitigate the dire consequences of such a large spill in such an environmentally sensitive area. It couldn't have come at a much worse time as the seas birds are nesting, turtles are coming to beaches to lay eggs, sturgeon are migrating into rivers and manatee are migrating to summer waters.

Oil booms at Breton National Wildlife Refuge
Booms to capture and deflect anticipated oil are being deployed at Breton National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), where thousands of brown pelicans and shorebirds are currently nesting. The Service also is initiating Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration activities in this incident to assess and address the long-term damage to impacted resources.

2000 pairs of brown pelicans have been counted 
in Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge which
is heavily threatened by the oil spill.
20 coastal National Wildlife Refuges could be affected

As the encroachment of oil into coastal zones appears imminent, primary concerns include potential impacts to 20 coastal National Wildlife Refuges within the possible trajectory of the spill. In addition, this is the avian nesting season and sea turtle nesting season is approaching. Gulf sturgeon are congregating in coastal waters for upstream migration and manatees are migrating back into summer areas more widespread than winter gathering spots in warm springs. All of these resources could be affected by the spill. Four are of immediate concern:


Breton Island National Wildlife Refuge
The second oldest wildlife refuge in the country, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. He visited in 1915, the only refuge he ever visited. Breton, which includes Breton Island and all of the Chandeleur Islands in St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parish, LA, provides habitat for nesting wading birds and seabirds, as well as wintering shorebirds and waterfowl. 23 species of seabirds and shorebirds frequently use the refuge, and 13 species nest on the various islands.

The most abundant nesters are brown pelicans, laughing gulls, and royal, Caspian, and Sandwich terns.

Bon Secour
From the French meaning "safe harbour," Bon Secour contains 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat for migratory birds, nesting sea turtles and the endangered Alabama beach mouse. Refuge beaches serve as nesting sites for loggerhead and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles. More than 370 species of birds have been identified on the refuge during migratory seasons, including ospreys and herons.

Black skimmers and sandwich terns at Breton
Island National Wildlife Refuge. Credit USFWS

Grand Bay
Located in coastal Mississippi and Alabama, Grand Bay National Wildlife was established in 1992. The 10,200-acre refuge partially overlays the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Species found at the refuge include the gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpecker and brown pelican.

Established in 1935 in the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River, Delta NWR comprises 48,800 acres of marshlands and open water. The primary purpose of the refuge was to provide sanctuary and habitat for wintering waterfowl. Species on the refuge include: American alligator, Brown Pelican, Arctic peregrine falcon, deer, swamp rabbits and piping plover. The marshes and waterways of support a diversity of fish species, including speckled trout, redfish, flounder, catfish and largemouth bass.

USFWS employees from national wildlife refuges, environmental contaminants, and a Service aircraft have been part of the response effort from the beginning and will continue to work with federal, state and local counterparts and conservation organizations, the U.S. Coast Guard and all other contributors in this response effort. The Coast Guard has the lead overall for this response effort.

Wildlife under threat

Service personnel are concerned that many species of wildlife, some already threatened or endangered, face grave risk from the spill. Ground surveys this past week at Breton National Wildlife Refuge, a 5,000-acre wilderness area, found more than 34,000 individual birds including roughly: 2,000 pairs of brown pelicans; 5,000 pairs of Royal Terns; 5,000 pairs of Caspian Terns; and 5,000 pairs of feeding, loafing, and nesting gulls and other shore birds. 

Species that could be affected by the approaching oil slick include:

  • Sea turtles: The Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill, Kemp's Ridley & Leatherback;
  • Large wading birds: Roseate Spoonbill, Ibis, Heron, Egret;
  • Beach-nesting terns and gulls: Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Least Tern, Laughing Gull, Black Skimmer;
  • Beach-nesting shorebirds: American Oystercatcher, Wilson's Plover, Snowy Plover;
  • Marsh birds: Mottled Duck, Clapper Rail, Black Rail, Seaside Sparrow.

Black skimmer are threatened by the oil spill.






steps being taken:

  • To help reduce the potential impacts to wildlife, especially sea birds, shorebirds, and other wildlife, the USFWS is advising the Incident Command on methods and procedures to mitigate the damage from the oil on wildlife. It also conducts, coordinates, and supervises search and capture for oiled wildlife.
  •  USFWS is conducting aerial flights to identify any oiled wildlife and help facilitate recovery and treatment by the Responsible Party. British Petroleum has contracted for bird and wildlife rehabilitation experts from around the country to treat oiled wildlife.
  • Staffing will be increasing to support response operations. A southeast regional response team is being organized now in the Service's Atlanta Regional Office to help coordinate the response.


  • A toll free number has been established to report oiled or injured wildlife. To report affected wildlife, call 866-557-1401. Individuals are urged not to attempt to help injured or oiled animals, but to report any sightings to the toll free number.
  • National wildlife refuges along the coast are on alert and assessing potential threats, submitting priority areas for protection, and conducting planning in anticipation of oil landfall. At this point, Breton National Wildlife Refuge appears to be most endangered by the oil slick. Booms to catch and deflect oil are being placed now.


There are many factors which make predictions on timing and degree of impact difficult, including tidal patterns, wind, weather, and the unknown impact of the spill recovery actions.

Volunteers to help protect wildlife from the oil spill may sign up by calling 1-866-448-5816.

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