Oil Threatens Brown Pelican Off Of Louisiana Coast

A brown pelican i i

hide captionThe brown pelican, which completely disappeared from Louisiana by the 1960s largely because of DDT, was listed as an endangered species — but then young pelicans were transplanted from Florida and the species gradually recovered. Now environmentalists are worried that the oil spill may reach the the Breton National Wildlife Refuge where brown pelicans nest.

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A brown pelican

The brown pelican, which completely disappeared from Louisiana by the 1960s largely because of DDT, was listed as an endangered species — but then young pelicans were transplanted from Florida and the species gradually recovered. Now environmentalists are worried that the oil spill may reach the the Breton National Wildlife Refuge where brown pelicans nest.

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Oil started washing ashore in Louisiana this week, about 50 miles northwest from where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank a month ago.

In a part of Plaquemines Parish in an estuary called Pass a Loutre, the normally green reeds and marsh are brown and dead, coated with oil.

In an estuary in Pass a Loutre in Louisiana, the normally green reeds and marsh are brown and dead. i i

hide captionIn a part of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana in an estuary called Pass a Loutre, the normally green reeds and marsh are brown and dead, coated with oil.

Melissa Block/NPR
In an estuary in Pass a Loutre in Louisiana, the normally green reeds and marsh are brown and dead.

In a part of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana in an estuary called Pass a Loutre, the normally green reeds and marsh are brown and dead, coated with oil.

Melissa Block/NPR

"It's so sad when you look around here and you just think of what was here, what's happening to it now and what's gonna happen to it," says P.J. Hahn, the director of the Parish Coastal Zone Management Department. "Unless we stop that oil out there, it's just going to continue to keep coming in here and wipe out everything we have. ... I think we're just starting to see the first wave of what's really coming — and what's really coming I think is going to be devastating."

Environmentalists are especially anxious about the Breton National Wildlife Refuge — the second-oldest refuge in the country, established in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It's north of the parish, part of the Chandeleur Islands, in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's a nesting ground for tens of thousands of birds, especially the brown pelican. The bird, which completely disappeared from Louisiana by the 1960s largely because of DDT, was listed as an endangered species — but then young pelicans were transplanted from Florida and the species gradually recovered. Now there are 3,000 of them on North Breton Island alone. They stand like sentinels, dignified and huge.

So far, three layers of protective boom have kept the oil off the shore of North Breton Island. The rookery is considered so precious and vulnerable that the Fish and Wildlife Service made sure this island got the boom first. But it's in the direct path of the oil spill.

James Harris, of the service, has been working at the Breton Refuge for 20 years and says the worst-case scenario is if the oil moves in on a storm and is carried over the boom and the island.

James Harris, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked at the Breton Refuge for 20 years. i i

hide captionJames Harris is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has worked at the Breton Refuge off the coast of Louisiana for 20 years. He says the worst-case scenario is if the oil moves in on a storm and is carried over the islands' protective boom.

Graham Smith/NPR
James Harris, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked at the Breton Refuge for 20 years.

James Harris is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has worked at the Breton Refuge off the coast of Louisiana for 20 years. He says the worst-case scenario is if the oil moves in on a storm and is carried over the islands' protective boom.

Graham Smith/NPR

"The longer it goes on, the more concerned I get — because right now up to this point, the tides, the winds, everything has been in our favor to keep it out of here," he says. "But, of course, we're getting into storm season now. So the longer it goes, you're pushing that envelope."

Down the beach, there's a dead brown pelican, an ominous sign of what could follow. Its wings and neck are coated in oil. Officer Raul Sanchez with the Fish and Wildlife Service puts the bird into a thick plastic bag and fills out an evidence seizure tag to go with it. The pelican is taken away for necropsy. It could be used as evidence in a criminal or civil case against BP, the company that leased the oil rig.

So far, the dead-bird count has been fairly low — in the dozens — but the fear is, many more birds are dying at sea and won't be found.

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