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The Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

April 12, 1999
Gary Mowad 303-274-3562
Karen Miranda Gleason 303-236-7917, x 431


After working to save an estimated two million migratory birds a year from certain death in hazardous oil pits, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees were recently awarded the Gold Medal for Environmental Achievement by the Environmental Protection Agency. Special Agent Gary Mowad and Contaminants Biologist Pedro Ramirez are the first non-EPA recipients of the medal, which is the agency’s highest environmental award.

Mowad and Ramirez won the award as part of a joint FWS/EPA team tackling the issue of eagles, hawks, owls, and other birds trapped in thousands of "problem oil pits". They, along with their team members, were honored at an awards ceremony April 12th at EPA headquarters in Washington.

In response to the team’s efforts in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, millions of dollars of oil pit cleanup has been accomplished by oil companies throughout the Western plains. Some oil companies have covered their waste pits with netting, while others have eliminated the pits altogether, drastically reducing the number of bird deaths.

The team’s work is now being used as a model for similar efforts by the Service and EPA in other parts of the country.

The problem oil pits -- used as collection and storage ponds in oil fields for spills and oily wastewater -- attract birds, bats, and other wildlife, which often mistake them for wetlands. The animals die after futile struggles to escape the oil-covered ponds. Some oil operators have tried to deter birds by installing colored flagging, metal reflectors, and strobe lights around the pits, but these efforts haven’t kept birds away.

In an attempt to curb these losses, the Service Mountain Prairie Region and EPA Region 8 joined forces in 1996 to form the Problem Oil Pits (POP) team. The team includes experts on oil toxicity to birds and other wildlife, oil spill cleanup, prevention control and countermeasures, outreach, water quality, and environmental law.

Outreach and law enforcement efforts have included workshops with oil producers and industry regulators to come up with new ways to handle the problem. The team has also worked hand-in-hand with the Bureau of Land Management and state agencies to conduct inspections, identify problem sites, and help bring oil operators into compliance with environmental laws.

The foundation for the POP team was laid in 1995, when Mowad combined the use of aerial surveys and Global Positioning Satellite (G.P.S.) technology to locate oil pits. Based on the G.P.S. data, a Geographic Information System was used to electronically map the location of oil pits, as well as spills and illegal discharges into wetlands and riparian areas. With these maps, fields agents on the ground could easily locate problem sites, where they found numerous violations of state and federal laws, including the Clean Water and Oil Pollution Act.

By 1998, the project identified over 1140 sites threatening wildlife and the quality of surface and groundwater. In Wyoming alone, the team discovered over 200 violations of environmental laws, leading to the Service prosecuting of 341 violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and collection of almost $150,000 in fines, as well as legal action by EPA and state agencies at 36 sites.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprising more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.

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