Federal wildlife officials downplayed the threat Gulf oil drilling posed to brown pelicans

When federal wildlife officials removed the brown pelican from the list of threatened or endangered species late last year, they downplayed the threat an oil spill in the gulf would have on the future of the species.And the agency charged with protecting the bird largely deferred to the now disgraced Minerals Management Service when it came to estimating the likelihood of oil from a drilling disaster like that now fouling the Gulf of Mexico damaging the delicate coastal breeding areas the bird depends on.”Oil spills and oil pollution continue to be a potential threat, but the breeding range is large enough that a single spill, even a major one, would likely only affect a small fraction of the population,” said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s final rule for removal of the bird, which was nearly wiped out in the mid-20th century by widespread hunting and the toxin DDT.The wildlife agency, which is responsible for making sure federal activities like oil leasing in the gulf don’t imperil wildlife, determined that oversight by the Minerals Management Service was adequate to prevent spills and improved technology could control those that may occur. “This threat has been alleviated in the United States to some degree by stringent regulations for extraction equipment and procedures, traffic separation schemes, shipping lanes that reduce the likelihood of collisions or spills, and improvements in oil spill response, containment, and cleanup. These measures reduce the probability of spills and also may reduce adverse impacts if a spill were to occur,” the agency said.That wishful thinking was typical of the federal agencies’ approach to oversight of offshore drilling. For example, since the start of the disaster, the total amount of oil BP has burned or skimmed is about 60 percent of what it promised it could collect in a single day, as the Washington Post reported.The Gulf Restoration Network and others are challenging the MMS’s arbirtary approval of BP’s cleanup plan in court.In deciding whether oil development could pose a risk to coastal marshes and grasslands where pelicans nest, federal wildlife official relied on studies from the MMS.The rule, published in the federal register, said the MMS “estimated only a 4 to 8 percent probability that an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico greater than 1,000 barrels of oil would occur and contact brown pelican habitat in the Central Planning Area.”The service added that “because spills…would occur at least 3 miles from shore, it is unlikely that any spills would make landfall prior to breaking up.”Images of pelicans wallowing in oil on beaches and oil-stained rookeries have proven that to be an overly optimistic assessment.The brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, was added to the endangered species list in 1970 and removed last November, though brown pelican population in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Atlantic Coast states were removed in 1985.There are an estimated 650,000 brown pelicans today, but most of those are in South America.In removing the brown pelican from the endangered species list, the agency responded to concerns about downplaying threats to the bird by oil spills by dismissing such threats as merely local phenomena.”There are a lot of factors that have effects to individuals and local populations; however, these factors are not leading to population level impacts and certainly not resulting in range-wide adverse impacts,” the agency said.However, the oil spill is now affecting all the Gulf States, especially Louisiana, the major breeding center for pelicans in the region.Some have argued that the bird was not ready to have its protections under the Endangered Species Act removed, and that BP’s oil drilling disaster could now land the bird back on the list.The original recovery plan for the brown pelican in the Eastern U.S. set the goal of re-establishing breeding populations on all historically used sites in Texas and Louisiana. Nine sites were identified in Louisiana and eleven in Texas.But the wildlife service later abandoned that standard, arguing that because the birds regularly populated new nesting sites when old ones were damaged.”Since 2005, brown pelicans have nested at between 11 and 15 sites in Louisiana and at 12 sites in Texas,” the service said.It’s unclear how many of those nesting sites have been affected by oil from BP’s drilling disaster, but “most” of the 2,480 birds collected from the spill area as of Wednesday – 1,505 of them dead – have been pelicans, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokesman said.Matthew Preusch is a campaign volunteer for the Gulf Restoration Network.

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