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Wildlife managers give wildlife a fighting chance

The Wildlife Forecast

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Media contact: Patricia Behnke

I find myself unable to write about anything but the oil spill this month as my colleagues at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) prepare for what might happen in the coming weeks. As I prepared to finish the column, scientists concluded that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the worst in our nation's history.

For more than a month, FWC biologists and support staff have prepared for the potential effect oil might have on our wildlife living near the coast of Florida. So far, Florida has seen no impacts as of June 1. We hope it remains that way, but if the tide should change, the FWC and partner agencies stand ready to do what they can to lessen the impacts on our precious fish and wildlife resources.

Oil spills in other parts of the world give our biologists some basis for determining how wildlife might be affected. Direct contact with oil or consumption of oil-tainted items can cause some serious health problems for wildlife, from skin irritations to organ failure and breathing problems, all of which can lead to death.

The Washington Post reported some of the early impacts seen by the wildlife in one area of the Louisiana coast: shorebirds dunking their heads in the oily water, trying to wash off the oil residue, and pelicans not able to flap their wings.

"There are few studies conducted on the long-term effects of oil on wildlife," said Carol Knox, one of the oil response wildlife leads and manatee management coordinator for the FWC. "It's been documented that mangroves, corals, shorebirds and other wildlife can die from the effects. However, we don't have any data on manatees, but we can make theoretical assumptions, because we know that manatees are air-breathers and have to come to the surface to breathe frequently."

Therefore, the manatee, along with dolphins and whales, could be exposed to volatile chemicals during inhalation, Knox added.

It is said that with a natural phenomenon, animals know instinctively what to do.  During the tsunami in 2008, very few animals perished. The wildlife fled for higher ground long before the ocean surge wiped out their habitat. It's speculated they could feel the earth's vibrations for the coming earthquake. Folks in the Everglades say wildlife are often the harbinger of impending storms. Gators head for their holes in the mud and birds hunker down or flee, sensing what they need to do to survive the floodwaters and high winds.

But what's a pelican to do when the oil arrives onshore unannounced and covers its home, food and breeding grounds? It gets oiled.

"Individuals should not go out on the beaches to attempt to rescue these animals," Knox warned. "The oil covering them is highly toxic, and untrained individuals could do more harm than good to the wildlife by adding to their distress."

We all want to help, and the FWC appreciates all the folks who have stepped forward to assist. However, rescuing wildlife requires skill and knowledge of the species. Shorebirds and seabirds are vulnerable right now because many of them are nesting. Sea turtles are nesting now and those eggs will begin hatching in July. We can all help by staying out of areas clearly marked as nesting areas and refrain from driving vehicles on the beach. Go to for complete information and links on the oil spill.

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to oversee the wildlife-rehabilitation response if needed in Florida. A process has been put in place for becoming a trained wildlife rehabilitator in this crisis. Also, Volunteer Florida is keeping tabs on opportunities for volunteers who are needed for other meaningful activities relative to the oil spill. Visit for more information.

Florida has been given the luxury of time to prepare if the oil should make its way to our shores. Let's use the time wisely and work together to save our valuable resources.

FWC Facts:
The North American Amphibian Monitoring Program is an international effort of the U.S. Geological Survey to track changes in frog populations over time.

Learn More at AskFWC