Jack Bohannan is the Refuge Manager of for Delta, Breton and Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuges in Southeast Louisiana.
Defenders asked him to tell us a little bit about how he’s dealing with the Gulf oil disaster.
Oil operations and the challenges that go with them are the part of the job when you work on refuges along the Gulf Coast. In fact, when the news broke about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, my staff and I were dealing with a 500-barrel spill in the heart of Delta Refuge caused by a spud barge striking a 10-inch pipeline. What’s happening now, however, is a whole new ball game.
With the Deepwater Horizon accident, our first thoughts were for the people lost and missing from the rig and the heartache endured by their families in this tragedy. Our second thoughts were that we knew from experience how much work was in store for those who had to deal with the spill itself.
Within a matter of days, as the potential reach of the spill became more apparent, we found ourselves at the center of that workload. We’ve been at it full-bore ever since as part of the unified, multi-agency response to the disaster.
The hardest part of working this spill is the unknown. We don’t know exactly how much oil has actually been released into the Gulf, we don’t know where exactly it will go, and we don’t know how much impact it will have on the resources entrusted to our care. Dealing with the unknown is probably the biggest source of fatigue, greater even than the long days of arduous work. It’s just always on your mind from the minute you wake up in the morning until your head hits the pillow at night. What keeps us all going as Fish and Wildlife Service people is the depth of our commitment to the resources themselves. When you are passionate about conserving wild animals and their habitats, that’s all the motivation you need to labor on in the face of this kind of adversity. The oil keeps on coming; but we will not give up and we will not give in. There is too much at stake.
The spill has occurred at a critical time for the nesting shorebirds and seabirds on Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which is composed of a chain of islands. The Refuge is still recovering from the impacts of the 2005 hurricane season and other weather events, so protecting birds and their nests is mission-critical. Our primary nesting sites for brown pelicans are North Breton Island, where we’ve got newly hatched pelicans in 1,300 nests; and New Harbor West Island, where we have another 500 nests with juvenile birds. In addition, terns, black skimmers, and laughing gulls start nesting in May on the Refuge and continue through the summer months. Right now, we estimate that there are 28,600 nests on North Breton Island alone.
A spill of 12-14 barrels in 2005 affected more than 1,000 brown pelicans, so the potential implications of the Deepwater Horizon spill are huge.
We have been working feverishly to protect these Refuge islands from the oil’s encroachment through the strategic placement of the most effective and available type of boom suited for this kind of offshore environment.
Working with BP and the U.S. Navy, we’ve put a huge amount of effort into surrounding both North Breton and New Harbor West islands with thousands of feet of 26-inch boom in an attempt to create a seal that will hopefully hold back the oil even in bad weather.
Our primary job is to protect the wildlife in this catastrophe, and that requires a lot of coordination with other agencies trying to carry out their own missions. We make sure that the needs of wildlife aren’t overlooked as the disaster response moves forward in highly uncertain conditions. With the number of people and amount of activity underway, we’ve had to close the Refuge as a means of protecting the nesting birds from disturbance. Finding the balance between allowing people to get near the birds to carry out their work and ensuring that the nesting birds are not disturbed has been hard, but essential. Human disturbance of nesting pelicans, for example, will cause adult pelicans to abandon the nests for a time, which in turn allows gulls to predate the young birds left in the nest on their own.
We are trying to prepare for any eventuality, getting the cages, the transportation, and the rehabilitation resources lined up should the worst happen. We are monitoring the islands and the birds constantly, working with the State of Louisiana and others. Because we know the waters along the Gulf Coast and in the Mississippi River so well, we’ve had a big role to play in ensuring that other members of the joint response to the spill navigate safely as they carry out their missions, including putting the boom in place. Changes in the weather can make the job dangerous. You can head out in good weather, and find yourself returning home in bad weather. There is also ship traffic to deal with, and nothing prepares you to handle all this except experience.
When I hired on with the Fish and Wildlife Service, I thought I’d be outside every day. It became very clear in a short period of time that this wasn’t the case. Right now, in this disaster, it feels good to be out there with the resource all day long. What doesn’t feel good is why I’m out there. But I have to say, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this moment in time, and I know others on my staff feel the same way. Despite the hardship of being away from home and family for long periods of time, I know what we are doing really matters.
We are doing everything we possibly can to protect the refuges and the wildlife resources we have here. If I could have one wish, it would be that this spill and the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig had never happened. The loss of life and the potential impacts to our natural resources are things we cannot lose sight of as our work continues.