Gulf Coast Wildlife Workers Prepare For Worst

President Obama visited the Gulf Coast on Sunday, as a massive oil spill spread even wider. Wildlife officials are increasingly worried about the creatures living in the ecologically rich coastal marshlands. At an animal rescue center near the coast, workers are preparing for the worst.

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We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

That oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to spread as thousands of gallons gush out from a pipe 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. All commercial and recreational fishing in federal waters will be closed for at least 10 days.

Lamar McKay, the chairman of BP, says it'll take at least eight days to cap that underwater pipe.

President Obama visited some of the affected areas along Louisiana's coast today. He described a massive federal effort to aid the cleanup and containment, but ultimately, he said:

President BARACK OBAMA: BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill. But as president of the United States, I'm going to spare no effort to respond to this crisis for as long as it continues, and we will spare no resource to clean up whatever damages caused.

And while there will be time to fully investigate what happened on that rig and hold responsible parties accountable, our focus now is on a fully coordinated, relentless response effort to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the Gulf.

RAZ: The president speaking along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana today. That area is a breeding ground for many different species of wildlife, including thousands of birds.

And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, wildlife officials are getting ready to take on what is shaping up to be an environmental catastrophe.

CHERYL CORLEY: Fort Jackson is about a half-hour's drive from the Gulf. It was once a first line of defense for New Orleans. Now, it's where wildlife officials have set up a facility to defend birds. That's because authorities fear one of the first places that will be hit by the oil slick may be a nearby wildlife refuge.

Mr. TOM MacKENZIE (Spokesman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): This is the tripwire, what you're seeing here now.

CORLEY: Tom MacKenzie is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mr. MacKENZIE: We've got 1,200 nesting ground pelicans on one island, 800 on another, about 600 on another, about a total of 34,000 birds of various species around the area.

CORLEY: MacKenzie says booms have been placed around three crucial nesting areas.

Mr. MacKENZIE: But you can't boom everything. We can't boom the entire coast.

CORLEY: So wildlife officials have devised a Plan B: rescue, capture, transport and rehab. And it's at Fort Jackson where the treatment of any oiled birds will occur.

Rebecca Dunne with the Tri-State Bird Rescue team says even if birds ingest some oil, an even bigger problem is the disruption of their feathers.

Dr. REBECCA DUNNE (Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, Inc.): So when a feather is not contaminated, it provides a wetsuit for the bird. It makes it able to swim, float, fly, stay warm.

CORLEY: But when feathers clump together, a bird can lose its insulation, its ability to fly and suffer other problems. So far, only one bird, a 1-year-old Northern Gannet has been brought in. Erica Miller, a wildlife veterinarian, says the oil came off quite well.

Dr. ERICA MILLER (Wildlife Veterinarian): This is a rather viscous oil. We use what's called a pre-treating agents, and then we use a detergent and wash that off, and so we are able to successfully remove this oil.

CORLEY: There is some concern that the oil spill here will become an ecological catastrophe that could ultimately rival the worst U.S. oil spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Jay Holcomb, the executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, managed the bird rehab there.

Mr. JAY HOLCOMB (Executive Director, International Bird Rescue Research Center): The birds were coming north and migrating in, in those massive birds colonies, puffins and things like that. So they would come in in the hundreds of thousands, getting into the oil. Here, that's not happening. So that's good.

CORLEY: The risk here is that the oil will come to shore, where a large number of birds are nesting.

Mr. HOLCOMB: The concern is that we won't get to the birds in time. We'll do the best we can. And we also have to be safe for us and the animals. So we just can't send people out there in boats, and you can't send people out in boats in the middle of an oil spill.

CORLEY: Wildlife officials also say people can't clean a bird on their own because of the toxic products and the stress they might cause birds. A hotline has been set up for people to call if they see a bird that's been covered with oil.

After they've been cleaned will come another critical decision: whether to release the birds locally or transfer them to another state. While the Fort Jackson facility is the first operational rescue bird operation for the Gulf Coast, another is being set up in Theodore, Alabama, in case oil-damaged birds come into that area.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Fort Jackson, Louisiana.

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