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Gulf Wildlife Protection, Rehabilitation Efforts Face Ongoing Challenges

July 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As news broke that the oil leak had been halted at least for now, work continued to help rescue the diverse wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. Tom Bearden reports from the Louisiana coast.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Even as today’s news broke about stopping the gush of
oil, work continued in the Gulf region to rescue birds, turtles and other
wildlife.

From the Louisiana coast, “NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden reports
on that effort.

TOM BEARDEN: When we first saw Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay seven
weeks ago, it seemed to confirm a lot of people’s worst fears. The booms had
failed. Oil was on the shore. Pelicans were coated with red crude. But,
yesterday, we found it teeming with life.

Patti Holland is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Each day, she and h

er colleagues patrol the bay looking for animals in distress.

PATTI HOLLAND, biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: So, what we
look for with the pelicans in the adults, if they have been diving into the
water, their heads are going to be that reddish-brown color, rusty kind of look.
So, we look and see. If all they’re sporting nice white tops, then they’re
looking pretty healthy.

TOM BEARDEN: These are Louisiana brown pelicans. They were threatened
with extinction until very recently. In the early ’70s, scientists found that
exposure to the pesticide DDT caused the birds’ eggshells to become so thin,
they couldn’t sustain reproduction. After DDT was banned in 1972, Queen Bess
Island is one of the places where nesting pairs were planted to reestablish the
species.

PATTI HOLLAND: They — they brought birds to these
islands to get them to start nesting in these areas once they got the suitable
habitat for recovery for the brown pelican, because the brown pelican was listed
as an endangered species until December of last year, so 2009. And so it worked
pretty well.

TOM BEARDEN: Does the spill possibly cause the pelicans to possibly go
back into an endangered species mode?

PATTI HOLLAND: Well, that’s one of the things we’re going to monitor.
Hopefully, this won’t be of the magnitude that it affects the population to the
point where that would happen.

TOM BEARDEN: Although hundreds of scientists are in the Gulf monitoring
the oil’s impact on wildlife, many questions remain unanswered. More than 460
dead turtles have been recovered, but almost none of them show any signs of oil.
It’s also not clear how many of the nearly 2,000 bird deaths are directly
related to the spill. And even how many animals may have actually died is a
matter of considerable dispute.

PATTI HOLLAND: This is radio three on the press boat on Bird Island 2.
There’s an oiled immature pelican on the boom.

TOM BEARDEN: But trying to prevent more deaths is still a top priority.
On this trip, Holland radioed a nearby rescue boat to take a look at an oiled
pelican sitting on a boom. When oiled birds are found, decisions have to be
made.

The animals are difficult to capture until they are very weak, and
aggressively going after an oiled bird could injure it or damage fragile nesting
grounds. This one could still fly, so they decided to leave it alone.

PATTI HOLLAND: Well, at this point, he’s still too strong to catch, and
we’re not going to chase him into the island and disrupt the breeding of the
other — the healthy birds that are in there. So, at this point, we will just
continue to monitor it. And if it looks like, you know, he’s getting weaker and
he will become catchable, then we will go ahead and catch him at that point.

TOM BEARDEN: Tom MacKenzie is a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service.

TOM MACKENZIE, spokesman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The situation
we have now is much improved over the month ago, when we got hit with oil real
hard here. Now, we’re still sending out our crews. We have about 14 boats that
go out on a daily basis here, but we’re only bringing in three, four, maybe five
oiled birds per day and finding perhaps three to five dead carcasses that we
also bring in for future use.

TOM BEARDEN: Pelicans aren’t the only animals affected by the spill.

A couple of hours north of Barataria, at the Audubon Aquatic Center near
New Orleans, a lot of people are trying to keep oiled sea turtles alive,
particularly the endangered Ke

mp’s ridley species.

Dr. Robert MacLean is the Audubon Nature Institute’s senior
veterinarian.

DR. ROBERT MACLEAN, senior veterinarian, Audubon Nature Institute:
They’re quite small, but they come to us completely covered in oil usually.

TOM BEARDEN: He looks pretty active.

DR. ROBERT MACLEAN: This guy is pretty active. They have been
responding pretty well to our supportive care. They come in oiled, a little
lethargic, but still responsive. And what we do when they come in is, we have
to process them coming in. We take photographs. We give them a number. And
then we assess them to see if they need any immediate care, such as immediate
I.V. fluids or something like that.

We get a blood sample so we can do immediate blood work turtle-side, and
get an idea whether or not we need additional therapies, such as glucose.

TOM BEARDEN: It sounds like an emergency room.

DR. ROBERT MACLEAN: It is exactly an emergency room.

TOM BEARDEN: They have cleaned and are caring for other turtle species,
too, large animals like this one named Koko (ph), as well as green turtles.
Most of animals are between 2 and 7 years old. Biologists here hope to be able
to return the turtles to their natural habitat soon, but they don’t want to do
it while there is still so much oil in the Gulf. And they fear that, if they
put the turtles somewhere else, they will just swim back to their oiled home.

In Alabama, biologists have started what they say is the largest turtle
nest relocation ever attempted. They have dug up more than 70,000 turtle eggs
and flown them to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where they will be hatched in
warehouses and released into the ocean.

Every time there’s a major oil spill, a controversy always erupts. Some
scientists argue that it’s a waste of time and money to rescue and clean
wildlife, because they simply don’t survive long enough to make it worthwhile.

After the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, one study concluded it cost
$80,000 to clean each oiled sea otter that was captured and that two-thirds of
them died within two years anyway. But MacKenzie says the jury’s still out on
what the mortality rates will be for birds and animals from this disaster.

TOM MACKENZIE: I know there’s a lot of studies out there. Some of them
are based on old data. Some aren’t using the current technology and
capabilities that we have.

Some of these are 20 years old that they’re basing these studies on.
So, we’re looking at looking at additional studies to find out, you know, how
are we doing that? And I think that’s coming down the pike. I think you will
start seeing that in the future, where we can better assess and answer some of
those questions, because they’re out there. And until we can really prove to
people, hey, you know, Pelican-A lived two years, you know, we’re really going
to have a thing to prove to the American people.

TOM BEARDEN: So, the scientific studies are under way? And, at some
point, you will be able to make…

(CROSSTALK)

TOM MACKENZIE: They’re under consideration now.

TOM BEARDEN: Consideration? OK.

TOM MACKENZIE: Right. Right.

TOM BEARDEN: In fact, privately, several scientists told us they are
frustrated that more research projects haven’t been funded. And, in some cases,
government red tape prevents them from more complete investigations.

In the meantime, wildlife scientists like Patti Holland will still be
out looking for birds in distress, hoping the birds can complete their breeding
cycle in the coming weeks, without a further influx of crude oil.

JIM LEHRER: Tom will have more from the Gulf tomorrow.