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Crews Scramble to Protect Louisiana Wildlife from Oil Leakage

May 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As BP engineers continue attempts to stem the Gulf oil leak, Tom Bearden reports on the implications for the wildlife along Louisiana's fragile coast and the attempts to protect the ecosystem from heavier oil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As crews try to plug the well leak in the Gulf, there are plenty of other teams in the coastal wetlands trying to monitor its effect on wildlife and the environment.

“NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden followed one team’s work near Grand Isle, Louisiana.

TOM BEARDEN: Mandy Tumlin is trying hard to spot dead wildlife on Queen Bess Island in Louisiana Barataria Bay.

MANDY TUMLIN, conservation biologist, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: We can see like a flipper and part of the shell.

TOM BEARDEN: She’s a conservation biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Tumlin, biologist Landon Parr, and their colleagues are out here to verify a report that a dead animal had washed ashore. After much visual searching, they could just barely make out a dead dolphin, and then a dead sea turtle among the rocks.

LANDON PARR, biologist, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: In that situation, basically, you had a dolphin, which was documented with binoculars onshore. But that area had already been boomed off, so we couldn’t open the boom, because we had oil moving in that area right there, and we didn’t want to compromise the rest of the animals in there for that one animal, who was already dead on the beach.

TOM BEARDEN: Most of the time, the $23 million Grand Isle laboratory conducts research work to help maintain the state’s fisheries and wildlife. But they have been directed to mobilize all of their resources to patrol the coastal wetlands to stay on top of where the oil is and how it’s affecting the habitat.

Within the last few weeks, the department has had to shut down most of the shrimp and oyster fisheries, a multibillion-dollar industry. They act mostly on tips. Someone from this work boat had reported seeing another dead turtle drifting near the island earlier that morning.

MAN: Can you guys point us in the direction of where you saw the turtle?

MAN: Right here.

WOMAN: But in the boom.

MAN: In the boom or outside the boom? Outside the boom.

TOM BEARDEN: Parr says they found several other dead turtles in the last few days.

LANDON PARR: We have had some — some turtles that we found. Basically, what we do in the field with those is, we will swab them and that gets sent off for testing. So we can’t determine at that point that we’re working up the turtle if it’s oil or not. And we have found some birds (INAUDIBLE) I believe and a pelican that have been oiled.

TOM BEARDEN: Why the focus on turtles?

LANDON PARR: It’s an endangered species. So, we basically patrol for dolphins, sea turtles, and — and birds.

TOM BEARDEN: When dead animals are recovered, they’re brought back here to the main laboratory. Then starts a long, involved forensic process of determining why they died.

It’s important to find out if the animals died from exposure to oil or something else to determine liability. The information also helps wildlife managers to concentrate their cleanup efforts and determine places that need to be closed to the public. The hard part is finding the animals in distress in the vast bay.

MANDY TUMLIN: We have got troops on the ground, all on the water, in the sky, covering any environment that we possibly can where any animals may potentially be affected by the oil or impacted by the oil.

We have got a long road ahead of us, but we’re going to keep chugging along and doing our best to document everything, and, you know, look into long-term effects this may have on animals, and as the oil continues to encroach our inland areas, our marsh habitats, and see what type of animals are affected by it.

TOM BEARDEN: Myron Fischer is the director of the research lab.

Have you seen a lot of wildlife damage already?

MYRON FISCHER, lab director, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: We have seen some wildlife damage. We actually — we’re anticipating a lot more. We are seeing some oiled birds, a few turtles coming ashore.

TOM BEARDEN: People have been surprised that we haven’t seen a lot more oiled birds and oiled animals. Do you have any idea why that is?

MYRON FISCHER: I think you’re right. The oil has been gushing for a month now. It’s still coming out the ground, but the oil only hit the beaches a few days ago. Now let’s see what happens from this point forward.

TOM BEARDEN: Fischer also wants to know what those hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants that have been used to break up the oil are doing to the birds and fish.

MYRON FISCHER: I’m really worried about it, the dispersant, the oil, what it’s going to do to the estuarine area, what it’s going to do to the vegetation on the islands if we lose acreage. I’m worried about a lot of issues. I’m worried that, will commercial and sport fishing in our state ever be the same in my lifetime?

WOMAN: Eighty-nine degrees, 57.442.

TOM BEARDEN: Yesterday, the head of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department sent a letter to BP asking for an additional $30 million to pay for the resources they need to stay on top of this environmental disaster. The state agency has also asked for additional funds from the Department of the Interior.