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Thousands of pelicans dot an island landscape shot from above
Information icon Aerial view of Queen Bess Island, which supports an important brown pelican rookery in Louisiana. Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

A head start on healing

Streamlining environmental compliance process speeds up restoration of important brown pelican rookery

“Good Queen Bess” (a.k.a. Queen Elizabeth I) is credited with putting an end to a period of instability in mid-16th century England. Unfortunately, the tiny scrap of land in Louisiana that bears her name, Queen Bess Island, has been anything but stable. The island, located about two and a half miles north of Grand Isle in Barataria Bay, has been sinking and eroding into the Gulf of Mexico. This is a matter of concern, as Queen Bess Island supports the third largest brown pelican rookery in Louisiana.

Two fluffy white pelicans sitting in a nest surrounded by wiry brown vegetation
Two recently hatched brown pelicans on Queen Bess Island, Louisiana. Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Less than five acres of suitable nesting and brood-rearing bird habitat remain on Queen Bess Island, so immediate action is needed to stop the erosion and build back what has been lost. Using $18.7 million of Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment settlement funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a restoration effort aimed at adding 37 acres of prime nesting habitat will start this October. If not for a remarkable regulatory feat, project managers would have had to wait until next year to start the project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) streamlining of the environmental compliance process led to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) being able to issue a permit for the project in only two days.

A regulatory process and the issuance of a permit by the Corps must be completed before a project can be started. Erin Chandler, an environmental compliance coordinator for the Service’s Deepwater Horizon Gulf Restoration Office, explained that Deepwater Horizon restoration projects are designed to restore the fish, wildlife and habitats injured by the 2010 oil spill.

“But we still must ensure that potential incidental impacts to the environment and cultural resources have been assessed, understood, and clearly outlined,” she said.

The Service streamlined the regulatory process for the Queen Bess project by taking on some of the compliance review the Corps would have had to cover in their analysis of the permit application. “This greatly simplified the process for them. It reduced their workload, led to a faster permit authorization,” Chandler says. “We effectively front-loaded regulatory compliance and made it easier for the Corps to conduct their permit application review.”

A dozen young brown pelicans with several young egrits in the background
A group of juvenile brown pelicans congregate on Queen Bess Island, Louisiana. Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Brad LaBorde from the Corps of Engineers New Orleans District Regulatory Branch agreed. He said that thanks to the agency coordination during the pre-application stage, the Service and the Corps “were able to identify where our processes overlapped, developed a plan, and executed it accordingly. For the Corps, it saved man-hours — not days, but months — and for the Service it resulted in a timely permit decision.”

“Often, the perception is that the permit process is a lengthy and cumbersome process,” LaBorde added, “but my job is made easier when an applicant is motivated, understands our process, and is willing to provide the concise and complete material that’s needed to make a timely permit decision.”

John Tirpak, a Service wildlife biologist, said agencies can’t engage in restoration efforts on Queen Bess Island while birds are nesting, which leaves only a six-month window (October through March) to get work done.

“This is a reason why a speedy compliance review was so important,” he said. “If the restoration work is not started before nesting begins, we would have to wait and we’d lose more of the island. And without restoration, we will lose that nesting colony within the next decade.”

An adult brown pelican with a large beach with a bright orange tip comes in for a landing at the waters edge
An adult brown pelican comes in for a landing. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS.

In addition to being the third largest nesting colony of brown pelicans in Louisiana, Queen Bess Island is the only colony for the birds in Barataria Bay. “We need to make sure to have brown pelicans in all locations where they were historically,” Tirpak said. “So if, God forbid, a hurricane knocked out a colony, there would still be others.” He noted that Queen Bess Island was the first spot where brown pelicans were returned to Louisiana after the pesticide DDT had wiped them out in the early 1960s.

“The Deepwater Horizon Gulf Restoration Office is constantly looking for ways to maximize efficiency while still fully meeting all of our regulatory requirements,” Chandler said. “The speed with which the Queen Bess Island compliance and permitting process were completed was made possible by the Service’s strong relationships with other agencies. Maintaining these cooperative relationships with our restoration partners is paramount to protecting and restoring the Gulf ecosystem.”

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