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FWS Biologist Nate Caswell and USFS Biologist Joe Metzmeier work on Ship Island in Gulf Islands National Seashore.  They conduct research on birds that could have potentially been impacted by the oil spill. Photo by Bonnie Strawser, FWS. Refuge employees dedicated to oil spill response

Since we received the horrific news of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on April 20, 2010 we have all wondered what we can do as an agency and individually to help. Our Southeast Region employees have provided tremendous support during this crisis. Refuge employees are no exception, as more than 300 Southeast Region refuge employees have responded to the call of duty so far. Their expertise and duties may vary; but, there is only one mission for refuge employees while deployed, and that is to conserve our trust resources.

This is a mission that refuge employees strive for on a daily basis, and the oil spill hits close to home since the Southeast Region has 29 coastal national wildlife refuges from Louisiana to Florida. We are experts at resource management, but the oil spill has added an uncertainty to what we do best. A new set of variables to managing our trust resources has emerged. There is uncertainty on how long will it take for us to see significant changes to wildlife and habitats, and we are hoping for a very slow hurricane season in the Gulf in an effort to lessen the potential for impact to our refuges. Although the future is unknown and there are many unanswered questions, our refuge employees are right at the forefront in an effort to figure it out.

During the oil spill, refuge employees have been working diligently with others to protect our threatened and endangered species, migratory birds, fish, marine mammals, and sea turtles. This is a job that in the past three months they have taken very seriously because 38 federally listed species, protected under the Endangered Species Act, could be potentially impacted by the spill; twenty-nine of these species are listed as endangered. Deployed refuge employees are working arduous schedules of 12 hours or more a day. Duties are as varied as employees’ expertise but may consist of patrolling beaches in search of nesting sea turtles, conducting surveys to determine where oiled birds and wildlife may be found, assisting with safe capture and transportation to rehabilitation centers, or working in the incident command center writing reports and collecting statistics.

After completing a shift and in the few hours of rest before returning to duty the next day, employees may wonder if the day’s work truly had any bearing on what might likely be the most catastrophic disaster that will affect how we manage our natural resources in the future.

“The hardest part of working this spill is the unknown,” says Jack Bohannan, refuge manager at Delta, Breton, and Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuges.”We don’t know exactly how much oil has actually been released into the Gulf, we don’t know where exactly it will go, and we don’t know how much impact it will have on the resources entrusted in our care.”

Refuges employees along the Gulf are taking precautions and are preparing for oil on their lands.

Ken Litzenburger, project leader of the Southeast Louisiana (SELA) Refuges Complex, says they have been preparing for oil on their refuge by, “prioritizing our assets and determining what is most important to protect from a major oil landfall. At this time of the year it would be protecting colonial bird rookeries from disaster. We members meet with BP and the U.S. Coast Guard to set daily work plans and report issues and concerns from the previous day, inspect the booming operations on Delta and/or Breton to ensure it is in the right place and in good condition, and examine the birds on the rookeries to ensure they are not oiled. We also keep disturbance out of the rookeries at all costs and hope the birds make it to flight stage.”

With the refuge’s staff members’ hard work and dedication, so far they have seen only minimal amounts of oil on adult birds and none on the young. Amidst all the oil spill response work, refuge employees try to maintain their regular work duties as well. At SELA, visitor services programs, maintenance, biological programs, budget, and day-to-day operations are still managed by refuge managers and staff.

Most marsh areas require boat transportation for surveying for oil impacts. Since the spill began, Bon Secour maintenance worker Jerry Dunn routinely checks the shoreline three times a week. Photo by Bonnie Strawser, FWS.One encouraging factor resulting from the oil spill response is the formation of several great new partnerships and the rekindling of existing ones. Since the Service is taking a leadership role in evaluating the impact of oil to refuge lands, we are collaborating with other agencies to accomplish this goal. With the assistance of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, state fish and wildlife agencies, and other responsible parties, the response effort moves forward to tackle the unknown.

As I write this article, there is renewed hope of containing the spill since the leak has been capped for several days now. This, of course, has our refuge employees optimistic that the work they have done and will continue to do will be worthwhile. Our refuge employees will continue to work alongside others for years to come as our resources recover from the impacts of the oil spill.

Submitted by Sharon Fuller, Refuges, Atlanta, Georgia


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