Birds in the Gulf of Mexico have a new enemy: some members of the press. Media aircraft have been conducting illegal flights and disturbing birds over Breton National Wildlife Refuge, an Important Bird Area off the east coast of Louisiana where oil from the leaking BP wellhead has been washing ashore.
“We’ve done all this work to try and protect those islands with booms,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Chuck Underwood. “But in the end, folks flying in low and landing just to get their photographs has been disturbing the birds. In some cases, there has even been nest abandonment.”
Tens of thousands of birds are presently nesting and foraging on the sandy strips and marshy spits in Breton National Wildlife Refuge, making this an especially devastating time for an oil spill. Michael Seymour, an ornithologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries flew on a sanctioned flight over the refuge Thursday and noticed black skimmers, laughing gulls, sandwich terns and about a dozen brown pelicans, loafing in the sand, just paces from a slick of oil.
Brown pelicans, large graceful birds that can live for 40 years, were nearly driven extinct by the pesticide DDT in the 1960s. Just last year they were removed from the endangered species list. On Breton Island, there are presently more than 2,500 nesting brown pelicans. While some bird photos may have been taken illegally, many of them have been shot during sanctioned boat visits with authorized staff, note Audubon personnel presently in the field.
Federal regulation prohibits “the unauthorized operation of aircraft...at altitudes resulting in harassment of wildlife, or the unauthorized landing or take-off on a national wildlife refuge.” On Friday, the refuge was closed because oil was found to be washing ashore, creating a health hazard for both animals and people. “Combine the health and human safety issues with the helicopters coming in and we have a serious problem,” said Underwood.
“We know it’s a great story,” added Underwood, specifically addressing journalists, “but back off a little bit here.”