Jason Coates, an engineering equipment operator at Lower Swannee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, holds an endangered salt marsh vole. The shy mammal is one of many small creatures in harm’s way if oil reaches the Big Bend area of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Also Imperiled by Oil
Oiled pelicans and sea turtles, their images flashing across TV and computer screens, have become symbols of the wildlife threatened by the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Large, iconic creatures — one, Louisiana's state bird; the other, a visitor favorite — the pelicans and turtles readily capture public sympathy. But there are numerous other less visible species, often heavily dependent on habitat found only on National Wildlife Refuges that are also at risk. And their plight matters more than one might think.
Take the Alabama beach mouse. three to four inches long, including its tail, the tiny rodent once inhabited a wide stretch of Alabama coast. Then development and erosion squeezed it into ever smaller pockets. Today, the endangered species lives across a 2,500-acre range on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, which includes Bon Secour Refuge, where it feeds on the seeds of dune plants ranging from beach morning glory to sea oats and seashore elder.
Normally, its dune–dwelling habit gives it a survival edge over shore–dwellers like terns and pelicans. But a hurricane could change the picture, driving oil inland and poisoning the mouse or killing the plants it feeds on. Why would that matter?
"It's our number one concern on the refuge because that's a species that would probably not exist if not for Bon Secour Refuge," says Jereme Phillips, manager of the Alabama refuge.
The mouse, says Philips, "is an important part of the food web. If it were to disappear, you would lose all of the small mammals in that ecosystem. It plays an important role in spreading seeds, helping to increase vegetation, and it serves as prey for owls and snakes and red fox and great horned owl. We don't always know what would happen if you remove a species, but we don't want to find out."
The salt marsh vole is another small mammal and seldom–seen refuge dweller in harm's way if currents or storms take the oil to the Big Bend area of Florida's Gulf coast. That area reaches from Tallahassee to Tampa, and includes St. Marks, Lower Suwannee, Chassahowitzka and Crystal River Refuges. The vole is a shy animal, not easily studied, that lives in tidal grasses accessible only by airboat.
"They are indicators of the health of a marsh ecosystem," says wildlife biologist Billy Brooks, who leads recovery efforts for the endangered species out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services office in Jacksonville, Florida. "If we get a large quantity of oil in the salt marsh, they're vulnerable to being covered, or the vegetation they feed on could be covered." If worst comes to worst and many voles die from oil exposure, he says biologists might even have to consider capturing survivors and removing them from the wild, a desperate action scientists normally try to avoid. It would also be a difficult move because the animal has proven extremely hard to catch.
Timing will play a significant role in how hard a hit some creatures take from the oil and timing is not in the piping plover's favor. Plovers, small, stocky endangered shorebirds, are due to begin their yearly migration south to the Gulf during the month of July to rest and refuel after breeding. The birds, among more than 70 migratory species (including peregrine falcons, snowy plovers and long-billed curlews) that rely on Gulf habitat for survival, will arrive exhausted and hungry on Gulf islands and barrier sand flats, where they will hunt for insects, marine worms and crustaceans.
"The danger lies in the fact these birds show site fidelity returning to the swamp area each year," says wildlife biologist Patty Kelly, with the Service's Endangered Species and Ecological Services office in Panama City, Florida. "They're used to the Chandeleur Islands, part of Breton National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, all areas now affected by oil. We don't know how heavily oiled they will have to become to figure out their food source isn't there." And should they seek other nearby feeding grounds, they'll find more competition for a scarcer resource.
Why would the loss of one or another small species matter? To Kelly, the world would clearly be poorer without the plover: "It's a beautiful species with a fascinating lifestyle," she says. But beyond that, she and other scientists worry about unraveling the complex web of life on Earth — what scientists call biodiversity. "It's one of the spokes in the wheel," says Kelly. "How many can you lose before your wheel falls off? Nobody knows."
For more information, visit the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center's Web site at: http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/
To learn more about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's response, visit: http://www.fws.gov/home/dhoilspill/index.html
To learn more about the Alabama beach mouse, visit: http://www.fws.gov/daphne/abm/index-abm.html
To learn more about the salt marsh vole, visit: http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/Species-Accounts/Saltmarsh-Vole-2005.htm
To learn more about piping plovers, visit: http://www.fws.gov/plover/facts.html
For more information on the wildlife refuges:
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/bonsecour/
Breton National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/breton/
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/saintmarks/
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/lowersuwannee/
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/chassahowitzka
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/crystalriver/