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Gulf oil spill: Wildlife officials predict widespread impact on birds, food web

May 21, 2010 | 12:41 pm

Biologists and other wildlife experts said Friday that the Gulf of Mexico oil leak was an "unprecedented" event in terms of its potential impact on animals and habitats, and warned that the absence of oil-slicked birds in large numbers doesn't mean that the impact won't be severe.

"We have seen some wildlife that have been impacted -- oiled birds, for example," said Ralph Morganweck, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service senior scientist. "But no one should believe that because we haven't recovered thousands of oiled wildlife to date that the impact may not be widespread."

Morganweck was one of a number of federal wildlife officials who spoke at a Friday news conference about the  unknowns that scientists are facing. For one, much of the wildlife that will die will do so far from shore, never washing up and never being accounted for.

Additionally, they said, most studies of the effect of oil on wildlife has focused on tanker spills, like the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 off the coast of Alaska. This release of oil has not abated and is flowing from a source that is a mile underwater and about 50 miles from land.

 "This one's coming in a way that has a lot of us working as hard as we can to understand what's going to be the larger impact ... it's a very difficult one," said Roger Helm, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contaminants division chief.

 A key concern, scientists said, is the extended, long-term effects to the "food webs" that bind large and small creatures in the complex gulf ecosystem.

 "That includes the plants and animals that are tied together in their food chain and habitat, so that if one species is damaged in high numbers, we'd expect others to suffer too," said Glenn Plumb, the chief of Fish and Wildlife for Yellowstone National Park, and one of the experts relocated to the gulf.

The number of animals recovered or treated thus far has been relatively small. About 66 birds have been recovered. Most of them were dead, but a few have been found alive and treated at rehabilitation centers that have been set up in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

 Since April 30, 18 dead dolphins have been found on or near shore, as well as 183 sea turtles. Oil was not found on the outside of these animals, although three oil-slicked turtles were found farther out to sea. In some of these cases, experts are still testing the animals to determine that oil played a role in their demise.

-- Richard Fausset, reporting from Atlanta