While the human and economic tolls of the Gulf oil spill have been a major concern, people and politicians are just beginning to realize that the gushing crude could pose a major disaster for millions of migrating birds from Minnesota to Maine, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Friday.
Federal officials need to make wildlife a priority in responding to the spill, she said. "This could be a long-term major problem for wildlife in this country, including Minnesota," Klobuchar said. "Only in the last week or two has anyone been talking about it in Congress. This has to be a major focus."
Klobuchar met with local wildlife officials in Roseville to get their assessment of the danger to Minnesota birds. They painted a bleak picture for wildlife, including Minnesota's 12,000 loons and its half-million ducks, many of which migrate to the Gulf region each fall. Some Minnesota birds, such as sandpipers, will begin migrating next month.
Those and many other species of shorebirds and waterbirds could be flying to their deaths if they land in the oil.
"Our fish and wildlife resources are national treasures ... and they clearly are under assault from this disaster," said John Christian, an assistant regional director of migratory birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is stationed in the Twin Cities. He told Klobuchar that birds from throughout North America migrate to or through the Gulf.
Loons are among the highest at risk because they migrate to shallow waters just off the coast, said Carrol Henderson of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"At first we thought it was a problem far away," Henderson said. "And then, as the facts started to sink in, we realized it's Minnesota's problem, too. We know it will be a hazard. We don't know how bad it will be."
Henderson said loons recognize predators as a risk, "but they don't recognize oil on the water as a threat. They will land on it."
Officials have recovered 1,800 birds in the Gulf, more than 1,000 of them dead, but they likely will find only a small fraction of those killed by the oil.
Christian said officials are exploring ways to possibly prevent birds from flying into the oiled areas, such as creating "alternative habitats" by perhaps flooding some inland areas. But he acknowledged those areas likely would be relatively small.
Klobuchar said that decisions need to be made soon because the fall migration is fast approaching. "We don't have the luxury of time anymore," she said.