Image: Farmer flooding for birds
John Flesher  /  AP
Grantt Guillory adjusts pumping machinery on his crawfish farm near Opelousas, La., in late June, as he prepares to flood the property to attract migratory birds. 
updated 7/29/2010 5:58:32 PM ET 2010-07-29T21:58:32

Water gurgling from a well is flooding Craig Gautreaux's rice and crawfish fields, turning the farm into a wetland for migratory birds whose usual Gulf of Mexico wintering grounds are threatened by the oil spill.

Across eight states, farmers such as Gautreaux are inundating fallow fields to provide an alternative for some of the tens of millions of ducks, geese and shorebirds that are beginning to make their way south on a flyway that stretches as far north as Alaska and Iceland.

"Hopefully, we can help," said Gautreaux, who has dedicated 762 acres (more than 300 hectares) about 90 miles (145 kilometers) inland from the Gulf to the project under a three-year, $132,441 contract that likely will cover his costs but provide little if any profit. "I want to keep the birds around."

Biologists fear the birds will arrive at Gulf barrier islands, shorelines and marshes only to find their nesting sites fouled and their food supply depleted. Government officials hope to have 150,000 acres of manmade wetlands ready by Aug. 15, although they do not know how many birds will use it.

The federal government hasn't funded anything like this $20 million project before, but farmers and scientists are hopeful the program in the five Gulf states and Arkansas, Georgia and Missouri could work. They note that Gulf-bound birds often stop anyway at their farms, where rice and crawfish fields are already flooded for parts of each season.

"There's a sense of urgency here," said Kevin Norton, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's conservation programs in Louisiana. If the oil causes major die-offs, he said, "that will ripple through the populations for years to come."

The program is so popular that Texas and Louisiana exhausted their initial funding within weeks and lobbied for more. Texas has now received nearly $6 million under the program and hopes to have all its contracts funded by Aug. 1.

Yet the scheme isn't likely to be a windfall for the farmers. It's designed to compensate them for pumping and holding the water, which can be expensive, without generating a profit.

The amount farmers are paid will depend on how much land they devote and the steps they take to make it suitable for birds.

Flooding will cost between $43 and $200 per acre, depending on factors such as water value in a particular area and the condition of the land, said Russell Castro, a biologist with the federal conservation service in Temple, Texas. Some farmers will have to build small levees or dikes.

"Anyone who buys a farm and runs it themselves, I guess you don't do it to get rich," said Grantt Guillory, 37, who raises crawfish and soybeans in southern Louisiana's Atchafalaya River watershed. "You get into it because you're somewhat of a steward to the environment. I care about these birds and I'm afraid the oil spill is going to devastate some of these species."

Farmers typically rotate which fields they plant, leaving some fallow each year, and the ones being flooded for the birds are generally those out-of-use plots. In some cases, the extra flooding might take place before planting or after harvest.

Some farmers might choose to provide several inches (centimeters) of water and mudflats from July through October, an ideal habitat for shorebirds such as sandpipers and dowitchers. Shallow water on moist soils in August and September could attract early migrating waterfowl such as the blue-winged teal.

Deeper water would be needed from October through March for diving ducks, such as redheads and canvasbacks.

About 15 million ducks and geese migrate annually to Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, said Mike Brasher, a biologist with the Gulf Coast Joint Venture, a partnership among government, nonprofits and landowners for bird habitat preservation. When shorebirds are added, he said, the total could reach 50 million.

Their habitat has been diminishing for years because of sinking, erosion, hurricanes and pollution, said John Pitre, a wildlife biologist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. The oil spill just makes things worse.

Agencies involved with the new program "had wanted to do something like this before, but never had the funding," Pitre said.

Many birds that spend cold-weather months in the Gulf region had already flown north ahead of the spill, which was triggered by an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers. But scientists say the danger will be waiting when they return — some as early as this month— even if the leak has been plugged.

Norton acknowledged that some species might not seek out the alternative habitat — especially those that instinctively return annually to the same places.

However, he said, if they make even a quick stopover in the newly developed habitat before continuing to the Gulf, they may go back after finding their former haunts polluted.

The piping plover, a shorebird on the federal endangered species list, spends winters nibbling tiny invertebrates on sandy Southern beaches and probably won't be attracted to the new habitats at first, said biologist Francie Cuthbert of the University of Minnesota. But if the oil kills off their usual food supply, some might fly inland.

Other birds, such as the common loon of the Great Lakes region, prefer open-water habitat and probably will head directly for the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, said Joe Kaplan, a biologist in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Map: Gulf oil spill trajectory

Video: Where has the Gulf oil slick gone?

  1. Closed captioning of: Where has the Gulf oil slick gone?

    >> million gallons of oil gushed out of that leak in the gulf before a temporary cap stopped the flow nearly two weeks ago. now, crews are struggling to find the oil on the surface of the water. so, where did it all go? nbc's lisa myers is in new orleans this morning. lisa, good morning to you.

    >> hey, matt, good morning. we spent ten hours out over the gulf over the last few days and found only isolated patches of oil on the surface. but scientists say there is still plenty of oil out there. and they remain greatly concerned about the continuing damage to the environment, and to wildlife. we went out to track the oil with pilot bonnie shumaker, a committed environmentalist. who has been out over the oil almost daily since mid-may.

    >> every day there's less and less to see.

    >> there was thick oil as far as the eye could see. now we find occasional blotches of orange.

    >> we're having trouble finding patches of oil. that doesn't mean we're not going to stay prepared until the flow is killed.

    >> reporter: but as we traveled offed southern coast of louisiana on wednesday, it didn't take us long to find oil.

    >> we are six miles off louisiana and are beginning to see significant fingers of crude oil , both on and underneath the water. streaks of emulsified crude bleeding into the water. surrounded by oil sheen. the strands of oil are heading toward an island, and there are no response vessels. at another location, there is even more oil. rows and rows of it. here there are skimmers. where has the rest of the oil gone? experts say it's evaporated and been eaten by microbes. but there's hundreds of thousands of barrels still lurking in the water.

    >> we should continue to worry about the oil that may be in the flow, and the oil that's in the water but below the surface.

    >> reporter: and experts say worry about how all that oil, mixed with an unprecedented 1.8 million gallons of dispersants, sim pacting birds and marine animals. what have you observed about what's happening to wildlife?

    >> well, i'm seeing much less of it. and i'm seeing none of it where i would like to see it.

    >> reporter: more than 3,500 pelicans, sea turtles and other wildlife have been found dead. on our journey we saw some flocks of birds, but not as many as usual. even in their favorite nesting grounds. even though the oil is now largely out of sight, government officials say it could keep washing up on the beaches for weeks. and scientists warn, matt, that it could be years before we know the full environmental impact .

    >> all right, lisa, thank you very much. that's lisa myers in new orleans for us


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