Archive for April, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico may collide with an area already bedeviled by environmental catastrophe, the infamous Dead Zone–an area of essentially no life or oxygen. So what happens when an inexorable oil slick meets and an undead patch of water?

The Gulf’s Dead Zone is about 6,000 to 7,000 square miles, one of the biggest in the world, Microbial Life Educational Resources of Carleton College says. It’s caused by fertilizer run-off in the Mississippi overfeeding algae. Phytoplankton gobble up the algae–and all the oxygen. Scientists call the areas hypoxia–or low oxygen. They can’t support life.

The oil spill so far is smaller, about 1,800 square miles. So far.

Right now the dead zone is west of the Mississippi and the oil spill is east of it. The dead zone is mainly at the bottom, which is littered with phytoplankton carcasses. The oil is on top.

But Nancy N. Rabalais, Ph.D., executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium thinks they’re likely to meet.

“If the winds continue from the southeast as is common this time of year, then the surface manifestation may move to the west of the Mississippi River delta and become a surface feature of the Louisiana area of hypoxia,” says

Some seem to have fantasized that the oil burn off will end up cleaning up the dead zone. Not so, says Rabalais. “The burn would reduce the more volatile and toxic components,” [in the oil] she says, but not burn off the algae.

The algae isn’t going to slow the oil down, she says, but the oil may slow down the production of algae:

“The movement of the oil would not be affected by where the area of low oxygen may be. Algal production if the oil were to come into the low oxygen would probably be reduced in productivity because of the proximity of the oil.”

The dead zone won’t necessarily have cleared out the wildlife; it’s too soon to tell, she says. While the dead zone is indeed dead to most sea life like plants and fish, birds and marine mammals pass through: “The area of low oxygen does not affect birds and marine mammals because they are air breathers and the marine mammals and turtles can reach the surface of the water for atmospheric air.”

The impact she expects is the oil will calm that waters of the dead zone. There will be less oxygen transfer from surface air into surface waters. The waters will stratify. The oil would cut back on the production of phytoplankton at the surface. And the oil and dead zone could pinch in on organisms caught between the top and bottom.

Perhaps the biggest impact is that the oil spill may decimate the wetlands–the wetlands the government had been building up in hopes of filtering water of fertilizers to short-circuit the dead zone. So much for that.

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Biologists know that a handful of manatees are in the Gulf of Mexico and swimming westward–toward the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but so far they have decided not to try to intervene. Mobile Bay officials may release dammed waters to push the oil away from the bay, a local scientist says.

A female manatee that spends the summer in Mobile Bay is now in Appalachicola Bay, FL, says Ruth H. Carmichael, senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, which is bracing for the oil slick.  Appalachicola Bay is roughly 250 miles from Mobile–if you take the shore route. They can swim up to 45 miles a day, but 5-15 is more likely.

“I hope she finds a nice location to wait for a while,” Carmichael says. “The USGS also has a few tagged manatees they know are moving this way.  We are doing nothing to move or disturb the animals.  Right now the oil is offshore and the manatees are in shore.  We need to trust them to take care of themselves for now.”

Manatees spend the winter near hot springs or power plants in Florida, but as their population has recovered, they are swimming further in the summer. A few now regularly visit Alabama and every few years a young male makes it up to New England.  

“Mobile Bay is trying to arrange for discharge of dammed waters , if needed, to force water out of the Bay and keep it westward off shore,” Carmichael says. “Mississippi may be in greater danger.. but it is difficult to predict what will happen.  This is a terrible event. Discovering a third leak was tragic.”

Where to Go to See Animals Down South

Where to See Manatees

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A stunning 400 species of birds, marine mammals, turtles, land mammals and reptiles could be hurt by the Deepwater Horizons oil spill, which is now just 6-7 miles off Louisiana. The current strong winds may blow the muck to shore by Friday morning, the latest report says.

Nola.com obtained a list of 400 species put in harm’s way by the oil from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. Bob Marshall writes that this is a particularly horrible time for the oil spill–right when birds are migrating through or nesting. The soon-to-be oiled area is:

vital wintering or resting spot for more than 70 percent of the nation’s waterfowl, is used by all 110 neo-tropical migratory songbirds, and produces 50 percent of the nation’s wild shrimp crop, 35 percent of its blue claw crabs and 40 percent of its oysters. Ressearchers say 90 percent of all the marine species in the Gulf of Mexico depend on coastal estuaries at some point in their lives, and most of those estuaries are in Louisiana.

The New York Times has a great chart highlighting which species are most at risk, mostly migrating birds. The brown pelican was just removed from the endangered species list.

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network–a collection of wildlife responders across California–has sent its director down and is collecting info on volunteers.  They say it’s too late to train you to clean up animals but you could become a “convergent volunteer.” Specialized groups or state rehabber associations do oil training seminars in preparation for a disaster like this.

The International Bird Rescue and Research Center is on alert, too. They regularly offer classes in Fairfield (northern California) and San Pedro (Southern California) for people to become volunteers.

The International Bird Rescue and Research Center is on alert, too.

Audubon of Florida is recruiting volunteers for the onslaught of oiled birds to be cleaned up at the Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, FL.

The unified command for oiled wildlife is 800-557-1401.

The Lousiana Wildlife Rehabilitators Association directs residents to call (866) 557-1401 for the Oiled Wildlife Unified Command Center. Not sure which prefix is correct, but it’s the same number.

The feds say they’re setting up staging areas to protect the shoreline in Biloxi, Miss., Pensacola, Fla. Venice, La., Pascagoula, Miss., and Theodore, Ala.

AnimalTourism.com: Where to Go to See Wildlife

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Deepwater Horizon oil spill seen from space over LA
Imagery courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

Endangered sea turtles, herons, white and brown pelicans, dolphins, whales, manatees, tuna and assorted sea birds  could all be hurt by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that is now 16 miles off the tip of Louisiana and alarming wildlife officials all the way to Florida.

The Coast Guard is burning the oil, hoping that will keep it from making landfall and destroying wetlands. I wonder if, ironically, the giant dead zone in the gulf may mean that the area the oil spill hits may be devoid of life anyway. The next step for wildlife rescuers would be to herd animals out of the area by hazing them.
The International Bird Rescue Research Center in Texas says they’ve been put on alert for the decapitated oil well, which is gushing about 1,000 barrels (42,000 US gallons) of crude daily and already can be seen from space, with a circumference of 600 miles.

If the spill stays offshore then the impact will likely be minimal to birds. Coastal birds that are highly at risk if the spill hits shore are brown and white pelicans, terns, gulls, shorebirds, skimmers and herons. Nesting and feeding areas for birds and sea turtles such as marshes and beaches could be impacted.

Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley turtles are in the area, Live Science says. Birds are vulnerable if they ingest the oil or get coated in it. The oil removes their waterproofing, then they die of cold. In a report on dealing with oil spills, the EPA says mammals that groom themselves with their mouths, like otters, end up eating oil and getting it in their eyes. Sea otters don’t live there; river otters do. No one really knows how to help marine mammals stuck in oil, they say.

Procedures for capturing, treating, and releasing animals may hurt them more than the oil does. For example, manatees are particularly susceptible to secondary fungal and bacterial infections following capture or transportation. 

Whales, dolphins, seals and manatees end up breathing hydrocarbon vapors that hurt their lungs, getting it in their eyes and nursing young eat it. Manatees summer as far west as Texas (but that’s rare); a few regularly visit Mobile, AL. The biggest danger to manatees, which spend the summer as far west as Texas, may be getting hit by boats responding to the disaster.

So far the Tampa Tribune reports that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hasn’t found any oiled birds, but they are doing necropsies (animal autopsies) on 15 migratory birds found dead Tuesday in the Pass-a-Grille area of St. Pete Beach.

In Alabama, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab is sending boats out to test the waters and “trying to re-establish oiled bird emergency response plans that have not been exercised for many years.” They fear it could be the worst Gulf oil spill ever. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry goes even further: “If we don’t secure this well, this could be one of the most significant oil spills in U.S. history.”

Where the oil spill is on 4/28

Where to Go to See Animals Down South

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Mule Deer
Mule Deer by Marvin James Phelps

The southwest has a deer shortage and deer controversy.

What could be controversial, you think? We’ve all been told that deer cause havoc, eating forest understory, crashing into 1.5 million cars every year, which kills 150 people and costs $1.1 billion.  Many people I talk to say they approve of hunting just because it cuts down the deer population. A Responsive Management Survey found more Americans approve of hunting deer (78%) than any other animal.

A Westfield State College paper from Massachusetts paper sums up the gratitude we should feel towards hunters because they “provide a means of controlling deer populations. Without some means of restraint, there is the potential to have deer expanding into areas beyond their natural habitat. This can endanger humans as well as the deer themselves.”

But in this case–as in many others–hunters want to increase the number of deer.  Nevada’s mule deer numbers have been cut by half since 1988, so hunters want to start shooting coyote and mountain lion. But state game officials say that won’t do any good; habitat loss is to blame for the deer decline. Tony Wasley, Nevada’s mule deer specialist, told USAToday that “all the predator control in the world won’t result in any benefit.”

But, science be damned, the governor and the hunters he appointed on the state’s wildlife commission want to shoot some varmints. Nevada Wildlife Commission Chairman Gerald Lent asked the feds to start killing predators (they said no, since there was no biological basis) and then he started a committee to restore mule deer. “The governor gave me and our commission a direct order — that he wants something done about our declining deer numbers,” Lent told the Nevada Appeal.

I think most people would be surprised that wildlife commissions’ official missions are to promote hunting, not a healthy environment. But hunters seem to feel entitled to have their needs put above wildlife watchers and the general public. The same survey by Responsive Management found that the majority of hunters in New Hampshire would approve of increasing the deer and moose population even if it meant more human-moose conflicts (86%), moose-car crashes (63%), deer-car crashes (68%) and damage to crops, timber and landscaping. I wonder if Nevada will go the way of Idaho, which recently introduced skunks and badgers to kill pelicans, and bring in some other predators to kill the predators that hunters don’t like.

Where to Go See Wildlife Out West
Where to Go See Deer

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The baby squirrels have learned to nap in a hammock. Can you guess how many of the babies are huddled together? (answer at bottom)

At first Baby Ruth was shy and would have been sulking in the corner. Here she’s at the bottom of the pile. I do hear some grumbling from the pile. It’s not always Ruth crying; it’s usually just that Alvin is roughhousing with his sisters. They have all gotten the hang of the hammock, which I just put up today.

 Alvin eats breakfast in bed.

Baby Ruth and Benji thinking: why is there not a nipple attached to that camera?

Baby Ruth experiments with almonds.

 Meanwhile, in the fortress of solitude on the other side of the room, Mickey is making some serious progress. For the last couple days she’s eaten nuts. That means she’s feeling more comfortable with her teeth. She still can’t crack nuts–let’s not get carried away. But once I open them for her, she eats them. I hope this means she’ll be able to go back home soon, though I will miss her.

Read where Mickey came from

Answer: All four.

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The New York City Parks Department named Pearl the Squirrel its official mascot, finally giving the city’s most popular rodent some due. Last February we lobbied  for a squirrel for the high profile post, lest parks end up with those peculiar garbage can characters. (Ok, those turn out to be for recycling.)

Professional illustrator Adam Koford created Pearl the Squirrel on his kids’ suggestion. Koford, who lives in Utah, is more known for his comic strip Laugh-Out-Loud Cats on Hobotopia. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe says Pearl will be the Smokey the Bear of urban parks. Asylum reports she’s already attained a Betty Boop-like aura among furries, who fetishize anybody in a mascot costume. 

Right now I’ve got one squirrel eating sunflower seeds outside on my Manhattan window sill between chasing pigeons away and inside  four baby squirrels and one adult with malocclusion in my care as a wildlife rehabber, so it’s no surprise I think of squirrels as the perfect emblem for urban wildlife. 

New York City squirrels are different. They’re semi-dependent on people, so they’ll go right up to parks visitors. The smaller the park, the pushier the squirrel. Every time I pass through City Hall Park some European or Japanese tourists have cornered some squirrel for a photo op, paying for the picture in nuts. They defend their trees against red-tailed hawks and sometimes live in subsidized housing. Suburban squirrels don’t have that kind of Moxie.

New York City Squirrel Tips Americans are more fascinated by our black squirrels (try Stuyvesant Town if you want to see one); they’re just a color variant of grays, like how Labrador retrievers come in chocolate, yellow and black. New York City has three species of squirrel: gray, fox and flying. (There used to be at least one red squirrel in Central Park, too.) The fox squirrels are the ones with the golden bellies. The flying squirrels used to be much more common; now they’re seen just occasionally at dusk in Inwood or Alley Pond Nature Center.

Where to Go to See Unusual Squirrels
Where to Find Wild Animals in NYC

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Would you like to treat a wolf to a frittata? What if you know it was his birthday? And that the wolf happened to looove frittata? Indiana’s Wolf Park–probably the most innovated wolf sanctuary in the country– is having a joint birthday party for its wolves this Saturday, April 24.

All the wild canids (including coyotes and foxes) at Wolf Park breed and give birth around the same time. Last year the center, which started in 1972, started having an adorable birthday party. You can buy your favorite wolf a birthday cake (a $25 donation) and then get a picture of them devouring it.
The cakes aren’t really cake, but a frittata with eggs, butter, cheese and chunks of meat, says assistant manager Dana. “The wolves don’t really have much of sweet tooth,” she says. They are very popular with the wolves. The human visitors enjoy the happy spectacle.

For the wolves that live in pairs or their own enclosures, delivering the cake isn’t much of a problem. But some in the main pack got ripped off last year. “The trickeist ones we have are the main pack. Last year we made larger cake they could all eat. One wolf, Tristan, the alpha a the time, just ate it all and was sick afterwards with a tummy ache,” Dana says. This year, they’ll deliver individual cakes, which they expect the wolves to run off with.

Cake time is 2 p.m. Saturday. Since they don’t want any wolves to go without, the $25 really goes to the cake fund. The park spends about $62 a day just to keep each wolf fed, happy, safe and healthy. That’s about $23,000 a year per wolf, not including frittata costs.

Wolf Park: This month the center is open weekends 1-5 and on Saturday nights for a howl. In May they’ll be open six days a week. General admission is $7, $5 for kids 6-13, little kids free. The howls are the same price. Joint admission is $12. They’ve also got photo and behavior seminars. They’re a little over an hour from Indianapolis and two hours from Chicago (765) 567-2265 4004 East 800 North, Battle Ground, Ind.

Where to Go To See Wolves
See More Animals in the Midwest

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When the Humane Society announced a poll this week that showed New Jersey residents opposed a bear 44% to 41%, it kicked out a discussion of whether the results are really true. Different polls are all over the map. Hunters point to this 2004 poll saying 66% of New Jersey residents support hunting in general. But of course that’s not bear hunting (another poll shows approval of bear hunting at 47% nationwide).

grown black bearSo I asked the company that did the state poll–and which specializes in hunting-related surveys–about their full results. Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, was nice enough to send me the links to two thorough surveys they did on New Jersey hunting attitudes and the way people view hunting different species.

Duda doubts this week’s poll results. “I’d have to see how the question was worded but that result would fly in the face of all other research,” he says. Indeed, the poll question does push. I wish they had just asked a straightforward question.

QUESTION: The state of New Jersey has protected black bears since 1970 with only two trophy hunts permitted in the past forty years. The state is now considering allowing hunters to kill up to 400 black bears. Do you support or oppose the hunting of black bears in New Jersey?

But the results fall in line almost exactly with a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind 2007 poll that also had 44% disapproving and 41% approving and that question was straightforward:

 Now lastly, thinking about bear hunting in New Jersey… in general, do you approve or disapprove of allowing a bear hunting season in New Jersey?

But they found that if they could skew results if they gave a preable that said scientists said there were too many bear and the were destroying private property. (See here)

Responsive Management just asks straight up if people approve or disapprove of hunting, fishing and trapping. They got 66% approve of hunting versus 28% disapprove (40% strongly approve, 26% moderately approve; 4% are on the fence; 6% moderately disapprove, 22% strongly disapprove and 4% don’t know).

I do find the language in Responsive Management’s write up of survey results a bit skewed toward the pro-hunting stance of their wildlife agency clients. They continually describe the belief that hunting may hurt an endangered species erroneous. In general, sure. But that doesn’t take into account wolves out west, condors and the general suspicion that wildlife departments that are funded by hunters skew what are supposed to be scientific results to promote hunting opportunities. (Hello, Wyoming.) But their 2004 survey questions aren’t biased and the poll is probably the most comprehensive we’ve got on attitudes towards hunting and wildlife in New Jersey. Their random phone survey found that:

7% of NJ residents consider themselves hunters
11% say someone in their household hunted in the last 5 years
40% thought the NJ wildlife division was using science as its primary guide
17% thought hunting and fishing were part of scientific management of species
39% thought they weren’t doing enough to protect wildlife (again, the language in the report minimizes this group)
50% daily access the internet (to me that seems like an older crowd, but their data says it’s not)

86% have no interest in hunting
75% wouldn’t even go if they didn’t need a license and a friend invited them

Aside from that, our biggest source of information is the 2006 National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreational that says only 1% of New Jersey residents hunt, but 23%, or 1.5 million, like to watch wildlife.

Responsive Management also did a comprehensive, rigorous survey on national attitudes towards hunting different species. They found that 78% approved of hunting deer, but for black bear it fell to 47%.

Will we ever get a poll that all sides are satisfied is truly unbiased? Fox has its own poll. You’re never going guess what happened there. People who go to Fox News support the hunt. What are the odds? New Jersey hunting groups are getting out the word to vote on a NJ.com poll. They’re saying the “antis” are trying to skew results, but I see many entreaties from all over the hunting world to vote pro-bear hunt.

Right now there seems to be little interest in balancing the interests of hunters and wildlife watchers according to their numbers or following any real science. Instead we have a system that if there’s a Republican governor, state biologists will find a way to hunt and if there’s a Democratic governor, they’ll find another way to control the population.  And they wonder why so many doubt the validity of their science?

Where to Go to See  Wildlife in the Northeast
Where to Go to See Bears

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Alaska bird rescuer Cindy Palmatier won’t know for a month if the eagle that plunged into the snow while clutching her mate will ever fly again. Cindy Palmatier, director of avian care at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, says the eagle did get bandages off one wing and may get to go outside Wednesday or Thursday.

The eagle pair became national news after they locked talons in their courtship dance on Easter morning and didn’t let go in time. Normally they swing each other around, then break free. This time, at least one of them miscalculated and they crashed into the snow in Valdez. The male died on impact. Bob Benda, a biology professor, was on of the first on the scene and thought the female was dead, too, then noticed she was breathing.

Benda kept the bird overnight in a crate and again thought she died, the Valdez Star reports. In the morning he was happy to see her alive and got her flown to Anchorage.

I had wondered if the eagle might be pregnant, but Palmatier doesn’t think so. The aerial spiral is normally a prelude to mating, she says. “I’ve never had an eagle lay an egg,” she says. “If animals are stress they tend to just reabsorb the pregnancy,” she said. And they treat 800 birds a year, 50 of which are eagles, she’s had plenty of chances to see egg laying if it weren’t so unlikely with these distressed birds.

Palmatier, who’s also a vet tech, says the eagles they get fall into three categories: toxins (often from eating at the garbage dump), starvation (especially this time of year, before the salmon run) and trauma. Trauma can include anything from fighting with each other to getting hit by cars. They’re currently getting a lot of emaciated patients because the winter was mild for moose and caribou, so there are few carcasses around to eat. Once again, our national bird becomes a lot less majestic once we learn the details of its lifestyle.

If the eagle is lucky, she’ll recover from her head trauma and wing injury and get released in Valdez. If not, she’ll become a permanent resident somewhere, if not the center.

The Bird Treatment and Learning Center has 30 birds that do educational displays for the public, but only four live at the center. The rest are farmed out to qualified volunteers who have built an enormous cage–often the size of a house. Interestingly, Palmatier says the state of Alaska doesn’t let people rehab mammals–aside from a handful of big game babies that may go to the zoo.

Go to See Eagles

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