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two yellow flowers growing out of very sandy soil.
Information icon Ground chokecherry. Photo by USFWS.

Sowing plants to reap dunes

Restoration biologist Kate Healy felt the sun on her face as she stood on a sandy stretch of beach along Alabama’s Gulf coast. It was an unseasonably warm day on Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and Healy, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gulf Restoration Office in Fairhope, Alabama, was ready to get to work.

Two women planting whispy grasses in a sandy dune.
Kate Healy and Jackie Sablan plant ground chokecherry at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Photo by Denise Rowell, USFWS.

“This is a perfect day for a dune planting,” she beamed, as a monarch flitted across her path.

Healy, along with botanists from the University of Florida’s West Florida Research and Education Center, was kicking off a project in hopes of restoring the beach to its former glory, before oil washed ashore in April of 2010. Nearly eight years ago, a drilling unit in the Gulf called Deepwater Horizon exploded, resulting in the deaths of 11 people and releasing approximately 3.19 million barrels (134 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was by far the largest offshore marine oil spill in U.S. history.

“Alabama was hit hard,” she said. “About 80 miles of beach were exposed to oil, affecting wildlife and destroying habitat.”

In addition, the massive cleanup effort included activities such as intensive raking and placement of boom that sometimes harmed beach habitat.

According to federal law, when an oil spill occurs, the parties responsible for the spill are then responsible for paying for the restoration of the natural resources injured by the spill (as well as services the natural resources provide, such as recreation). An historically large settlement reached with BP in 2016, is funding 95 restoration projects located across the Gulf. Fifteen of the projects are located on the Department of the Interior’s refuges and national parks.

At Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, one of those restoration projects focuses on planting native vegetation on the beach in order to create and stabilize sand dunes.

“We planted dune vegetation back in 2015, mostly sea oats and cord and panic grasses and 80 percent of these plants survived. As part of an adaptive management strategy, we determined that plant diversity would help us achieve restoration goals at Bon Secour, especially with sand dunes. So we’re back out here today with another type of plant,” Healy said.

Sand dunes are wind-blown sand mounds that form just behind the beach face. They provide habitat for many animals, including birds, nesting sea turtles, and the Alabama beach mouse. They also play other important roles.

“A stable dune system rich in species is able to absorb the impact and protect inland areas from high energy storms,” Healy explained. “Dunes also act as a resilient barrier to erosion of wind and waves.”

With crates of plants in hand, Healy, along with the university botanists, hiked across a stretch of beach. They carried hundreds of ground chokecherries. “Ground chokecherry is a vital food resource for the Alabama beach mouse,” Kate said.

The Alabama beach mouse is an endangered species only found on the beaches of coastal Alabama. These critters serve an important role in the sand dune ecosystem, spreading various plant seeds that grow into vegetation, anchoring the sand and stabilizing dunes.

Jackie Sablan, a Service biologist with Bon Secour, is part of this dune restoration and creation effort. “I was there when oil washed ashore on the refuge eight years ago, and it was heartbreaking,” she said. “Planting this vegetation will greatly improve the sand dune ecosystem, which is a win for wildlife, and a win for people.”

The dune project doesn’t end with ground chokecherry. This spring, the group will return to the beaches of Bon Secour and plant sand milkweed. “Milkweed is the perfect plant for monarch butterflies,” Sablan said. “They eat the plant as caterpillars, and use it again as butterflies to lay their eggs.”

Biologists will continue to monitor the plants, and document the dune formation long after the vegetation is installed. They’ll do whatever it takes to right the wrongs of 2010 and restore Alabama’s precious natural resources.

For information about other restoration projects funded by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement, visit the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration website.

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