Farmland flooded for duck habitat after oil spill, ducks disregard

Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 4:38 p.m. CDT; updated 6:56 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 19, 2011

NEW ORLEANS — Flooding farmland after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill didn't keep migrating ducks from flocking to coastal marshes but did provide essential inland wetlands during a major drought, a Louisiana state waterfowl expert said.

The National Fish And Wildlife Foundation used $3 million from oil recovered by BP PLC to get farmers in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi into existing federal programs to flood fallow fields as habitat for waterfowl and wading birds. Florida and Alabama grants targeted other wetlands work.

The idea, hatched before BP temporarily capped its well in July, was that ducks, geese and shorebirds would see tempting wetlands and stop there rather than continue on to oily marshes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture joined in, spending $20 million in the five Gulf states and Arkansas, Georgia and Missouri to provide respite for tens of millions of birds heading south from as far north as Alaska and Iceland.

About 50,000 acres of farmland flooded with BP money was in Louisiana, where more than 600 miles of coastline was oiled in the months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20. Another 28,800 acres were in Texas, and nearly 71,000 acres were in Mississippi.

If you measure success by whether those temporary shallow ponds kept ducks out of coastal marshes, "it was a miserable failure. And it really had no chance of keeping substantial numbers of ducks from southeast Louisiana," said Larry Reynolds, waterfowl study team leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Flooded fields won't grow the food some species need, he said.

About 1.4 million ducks, twice the average but not a record, wintered in southeastern Louisiana, said Reynolds, who makes the department's annual aerial surveys. Those surveys, which ended in late February, couldn't get close enough to tell where oil remained.

"Whatever damage occurred to the habitat from the oil, it did not keep birds from using that habitat, at least on a large scale," Reynolds said.

However, the ponds did provide excellent habitat that was heavily used by migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, especially in a drought year, Reynolds said.

Many of the farmers have three-year contracts, so much of the land will be available for at least two more years, he said.

"There still was the value to the birds overall," said Tom Kelsch, director of conservation for the foundation. "So even though we didn't need to rely on it as truly alternative habitat to replace or compensate for oiled marshes, it was nonetheless providing really valuable habitat and food for shorebirds and should have lasting impacts hopefully."

BP said in June that it was giving its net share of money from oil recovered from the spill to NFWF. More than 34.7 million gallons were recovered and nearly 24.8 million gallons sold — the rest were flared, BP spokesman Scott Dean said.

He said the sales grossed $40 million. BP got $26 million of that and gave $22 million to the foundation's Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife. That's the biggest single donation NFWF has ever received, Kelsch said.

The money had to be used outside the direct spill zone — it could not be used for anything that would overlap the Gulf of Mexico cleanup and rehabilitation for which the company is legally responsible, he said.

Kelsch said the first round of donations included restoring coastal wetlands in southwest Louisiana, which was not affected by the spill, as well as flooding farmlands. Together, those affected about 165,000 acres, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered incentives that increased the total flooded farmland to more than 500,000 acres, Kelsch said.

Kyle Veillon flooded 568 acres of the 1,100 he farms near Ville Platte, about 70 miles west of Baton Rouge.

"We had thousands of ducks in our fields," he said — predominantly mallards, teal and pintail — and ibis and other wading birds.

The lake he uses for irrigation always gets lots of birds, but there were more this year, he said. Between a payment from Ducks Unlimited, which got its money from the fund, and the federal government, he said he probably got about $14,000 on a one-year contract. That covered the cost with perhaps a bit to spare, he said.

"I'll possibly look at another year if it was offered to me," he said.

Reynolds said ducks that winter in coastal marshes are predominantly blue-winged and green-winged teal ducks, ring-necked ducks and gadwalls. Those birds are not likely to be stopped by the temporary habitat, he said.

For example, he said, gadwalls eat leaves and other parts of underwater plants that just don't grow in flooded farmland, where the available food is mostly seeds and bugs.

"This year — probably mostly because of the drought up on the (Mississippi) Flyway — a lot of their habitat was dry. Those birds had to come down here," he said.

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