St. Paul – A wide variety of wildlife species familiar to most people in Minnesota – including loons, the state bird – could be affected by the Gulf oil spill.
Wildlife officials say it’s too early to know exactly what the effects might be, but this much is certain: young loons likely are in the area now, and adult loons and a host of waterfowl species will be making their way down there in coming months.
Federal officials say they ruptured pipe is leaking 500,000 to a million or more gallons of oil every day, though a cap might be collecting anywhere from 37 percent to 77 percent of the oil. The spill occurred April 20.
"We know our juvenile loons stay on the ocean for three years, so there are loons down there now," said Pam Perry, of the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program. "It’s certainly something that’s on all of our radars. We’ll learn more as this thing continues."
Waterfowl could be at risk, too.
According to Ducks Unlimited, as many as 13 million ducks and geese winter along the Gulf Coast in some years.
Oil doesn’t appear to be affecting the brackish or freshwater marshes yet, though a hurricane could change all that. Even so, there are some species – loons and bluebills among them – that use the open, saltwater areas extensively.
"If there is still going to be oil out there (this fall) it would certainly affect scaup, which I’d worry about," said Dr. Al Afton, a waterfowl researcher at Louisiana State University and former waterfowl biologist in Minnesota. "They use those habitats out there along the coast in the open water.
"If the oil gets into those internal marshes when the other ducks come… The puddle ducks – that’s the habitat they use," he said.
During a past study, researchers flew surveys to document the extent to which scaup use open-water areas.
"We found as many or more scaup in some of those three years out there as we did in-shore – so there’s a significant number out there," Afton said. "(But) nobody really knows what goes on for ducks out there."
One concern both Afton and Perry share is the spill’s effect on the food chain.
Loons, for example, use the open water and dive for fish and, perhaps, crabs.