Migratory bird program helping wildlife, popular with farmers

Habitats give aid to areas hit by oil spill

Four years ago, as oil continued to spew into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, state and federal biologists started making plans to help the future of wildlife in Louisiana wetlands.

With a lot of uncertainty surrounding just how much and where oil could penetrate into Louisiana wetlands and marshes, planning began to create wintering habitats to prevent at least some migrating birds from settling into oiled areas.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service ultimately put up $40 million in funding for the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative that provided technical and financial help to farmers in order to make their land more attractive to birds.

That first year, about $14 million of the total funding was spent in Louisiana and allowed farmers to either flood their fields a little earlier than usual or hold the water on the land a little longer than usual to provide more than 190,000 additional acres of water bird habitat, said John Pitre, NRCS state resource conservationist in Louisiana.

“It’s an excellent opportunity to enhance agriculture for water birds,” he said. “It was very successful at that.”

Benefits of the program in providing habitat, especially during drought years like 2010, convinced NRCS to give state offices the option of keeping the program going, but on a limited scale that had to be funded through the state office’s current budget. About $300,000 statewide will be made available for the Louisiana NRCS Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative effort this year, Pitre said.

More money could always be used because it’s proved to be popular with farmers, he said.

“These people are good stewards. They live off the land and they want to take care of their land,” Pitre said.

The tax money that goes to funding the program is money well spent, he said, because the health of wintering and migrating birds has a benefit to society whether it’s through bird watching, ecology or hunting.

The worst-case scenario, which would have had a tropical storm push oil far into interior marshes along the coast, never materialized, Pitre said. There’s really no study or definitive way to know if or how many birds were kept out of oiled areas because of the additional habitat created farther north in the state.

There have been studies on whether wintering and migrating birds use the additionally created wetland habitat on agriculture lands and they support the success of the program, Pitre said.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the University of Delaware used weather radar information to determine pre-spill and post-spill uses of agricultural land involved in the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative.

“The NRCS, they wanted to know how well the program was working, were the birds using the lands through the MBHI,” said Mike Baldwin, ecologist with USGS at the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette and one of the researchers on the project.

Because all weather radar is archived, the researchers could use that information to determine bird use of the agricultural land.

“Radar doesn’t just pick up rain, it also picks up bird movement,” he said, particularly when these waterfowl and migratory birds fly together just after sunset and just before sunrise between feeding and resting spots.

“In general, we did see an increase in bird use,” Baldwin said.

In addition, researchers saw higher use on agricultural fields being managed as habitat versus nearby agricultural land that wasn’t enrolled in the program, he said.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.