The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

July 3, 2010

Signs of Gulf oil spill could be seen soon in northwest Oklahoma

By Violet Hassler, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

— Salt Plains in northwestern Oklahoma has offered a place of rest, feeding and breeding to migratory shore birds and other avian species for hundreds of thousands of years.

This next year refuge officials may be key witnesses to the affects of a current oil spill coating the Gulf Coast in a deadly morass of crude.

The photos have been quite graphic — several species of birds coated in oil pulled from the waters and marshes of their permanent or migratory homes dead or barely alive. Other, more uplifting scenes show the rehabilitated birds released back into the wild — healthy enough to survive, even as darker patches stain feathers as a mark of their trauma.

“I don’t thing we’ve seen the worst of it yet.” Ron Shepperd, Salt Plains Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist, said one recent June morning as he walked the salt flats of the refuge.

The wetland area attracts migrating white pelicans flying from those Gulf waters every fall and spring as a temporary stopover. Pelicans will be arriving at the refuge from the north on their way to the Gulf this fall and will return in the spring.

“They most likely could (be affected by the spill),” Shepperd said, and signs may be visible.

Jeff Wells, science and policy director with Boreal Songbird Initiative, which tracks migratory birds, said the impact of the spill on the pelican and other migratory birds that take refuge in northwestern Oklahoma may become more evident next spring — when refuge officials’ count of the birds could show a decline.

Shepperd has pondered answering a call for wildlife biologists to help out in the Gulf area with the rehabilitation of wildlife affected by the spill.

He said he may go in the fall, if there still is a need, but like all biologists in refuge areas like Salt Plains there are not a lot of extra hands take up the slack in his absence. But the impact of the spill on the wildlife — like the human life — is taking a great toll.

“Even with all the pictures and stories, the public cannot grasp how bad it’s going to be. It’s not if, it’s when,” Shepperd said, adding while he has a more educated picture of the devastation, he really doesn’t know the impact.

“With hurricane season starting, that’s what will be ultimate devastation,” he hypothesized.

Help will be needed along the Gulf tomorrow as it is today, because it’s not like the birds will leave.

The birds’ instincts override the reality that something is wrong with the water and shoreline.

“Their instinct — it’s their habitat — overrides that,” Shepperd said, no matter how much trauma is suffered.“They’ll go back.”