The Skywriter

The BP oil spill: An ecological disaster

8
Jul

The BP oil spill: An ecological disaster

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By Janelle Corn, Ph.D. See bio at the end of this post. -- Luis

Yesterday, a guest blog at 1Sky posted a heart-wrenching story about oil from the BP spill coming ashore at Florida's Gulf Island National Seashore, one of 15 special places identified as at-risk in a report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report, which can be downloaded as .pdf files at this link, was written in late May to summarize a just few of the many, many national parks, wildlife refuges, and seashores at potential risk from the BP oil spill that has now been flowing for over 2 months.

We've seen so many pictures and read so many news reports about the devastation along the Gulf Coast, it's hard to fathom the scope of the treasure of our Gulf Coast natural habitat that is now at risk. If you are from another part of the country (or the globe), this document is a good place to go to become familiar with the vast area and array of natural treasures preserved along the Coast. Breton Island NWR off Louisiana's coast, among the first areas to be oiled, is

the country's second oldest national wildlife refuge, was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 ....it has been designated by Congress as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The refuge also is a Globally Important Bird Area.

Terns, brown pelicans, and black skimmers nest here. It is one of only four Gulf of Mexico wintering grounds for redheads, with numbers as high as 20,000. It is a critically important wintering ground for piping plovers, an endangered species.

The Gulf of Mexico is a globally unique ecosystem, including habitats essential to the annual cycles of hundreds of species of breeding, wintering and migrating birds – sea birds, waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, raptors, songbirds, and more.

Delta NWR and Pass a Loutre WMA, 50 miles from the drill rig explosion, have also been impacted. These Mississippi River Delta habitats are critically important waterfowl wintering areas and migratory stopovers:

What is at stake is enormously important, in the Gulf and beyond – an extraordinarily rich environment that supports a huge quantity and diversity of wading, sea and shore birds, migratory waterfowl and songbirds, crabs, shrimp, and both fresh and saltwater fish.

Grand Bay NWR, in coastal Mississippi and Alabama, protects one of the remaining expanses of wet pine savanna habitat and coastal wetland. Associated areas include the Grand Bay Estuarine Research Reserve and together they make up The Nature Conservancy's Grand Bay Savanna project area, a bioreserve TNC accords 'one of its Last Great Places in America'.

Healthy estuarine salt marshes are among the most biologically diverse habitats in North America. In Grand Bay, this habitat supports many important species of fish and wildlife. Commercially and recreationally important species of finfish and shellfish such as brown shrimp, speckled trout, and oysters abound here. Sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins and, on occasion, manatees can be found in the deeper waters of the reserve.

Oil was detected on Alabama's Bon Secour NWR May 12:

The refuge is one of the largest undeveloped parcels of land on the Alabama coast and serves as an example of the Gulf Coast as it once existed. It has been named as one of the 10 natural wonders of Alabama.
Because of its strategic location along the flyway of millions of spring and fall migrants and the habitat it provides, more than 370 species of birds have been identified on the refuge during migratory seasons, making Bon Secour one of the most important refuges in the national refuge system....[parts of the Refuge]are designated as critical habitat for the piping plover.
Loggerhead and Kemp's ridley sea turtles, both endangered species, nest on Bon Secour NWR beaches. With 4.5 to 5 nests per mile, the refuge has nest densities as high as or higher than many areas along the northern Gulf Coast....Sea turtles move throughout the Gulf and are vulnerable to oil spills at every stage of their lives: in their eggs, as hatchlings heading to the water, and foraging and migrating.

Hundreds of national parks, wildlife refuges, and state wildlife management areas have been identified as at risk from the disastrous BP oil spill, including 31 national wildlife refuges alone. But, as the authors stated in their introduction:

This report is not intended to raise useless alarm but to galvanize action. Short-term action is urgently needed [to stop the spill and clean up the oil].... Every bit as important is long-term action. The BP oil catastrophe is today's overwhelming demonstration of the dangers of America's over-dependence on and over-use of fossil fuels. Besides oil spills, those dangers include emissions of heat-trapping gases that are disrupting our climate..... The disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is a powerful reason, one among many, for us to shift to safer, cleaner, cheaper, and more secure energy resources.

Gulf Islands National Seashore, with their beautiful beaches and dunes; St. Marks NWR, where a wintering population of critically endangered whooping cranes is being established; and there are so many others. Please take a look and gain a new, deeper appreciation of what we all have to lose if the Gulf Coast is damaged. It is time for us all to push harder for passage of energy and climate change legislation in the U.S. Senate in the coming weeks.

Janelle Corn, Ph.D., is an ecologist and wildlife biologist living in western Montana. She has lived and worked in the western U.S. for 30 years, and is currently an activist for addressing climate change before it's too late. Her new blog is Natural History Now. The author's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the 1Sky campaign.

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