In response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fouling beaches, marshes and mudflats all along the northern Gulf coast, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has created the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative. The initiative will use federal Farm Bill funds to provide incentive payments to farmers, catfish farmers, and other landowners able to quickly flood up their land in anticipation of fall migration, which begins in July for some species of shorebirds.
The program will be available in select counties and parishes of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. The intent of the program is, in the words of Jim Cummins, CEO of the nonprofit Wildlife Mississippi, “kind of like providing the birds a good restaurant, so maybe they won’t go elsewhere.” BP is not paying for this grant program.
Tens of millions of shorebirds, waterfowl, wading birds, marsh birds and neotropical migrant species depend on the Gulf for feeding, resting, and nesting. By providing wetland restoration and enhancement, it will be possible to increase survivorship of the birds that will migrate through or overwinter in the Gulf beginning as early as July.
Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri collectively represent 36 percent of the Mississippi Flyway. The Flyway is an important corridor in spring and fall for millions of these migratory birds. Because of their proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, these states are the first and last land habitat encountered for trans-gulf migrants. Also, these states due to their more southerly latitudes provide critical wintering habitat for significant numbers of waterfowl, wading birds, sparrows and other short-distance migrants who are escaping frozen waters farther north.
These areas also just happen to be some of the most important agricultural regions of each state for grain crops such as rice, corn, soybean, wheat, and milo. These same areas are "seed bank rich" with native annual grasses (wild millets) and forbs (duck potato, yellow nutsedge, smartweeds) that will quickly respond to properly managed soil and water manipulation.
Lands Targeted by the Program
The program has two targets: private agricultural land, and lands that are already protected under the Wetland R eserve Program. Incentive payments, paid by the acre, will reimburse landowners for the cost of pumping or discing to prepare habitat for the birds earlier than might normally be the case.
Target One: Agricultural Lands
On agricultural lands, financial and technical assistance will be available to provide feeding, loafing and resting areas for migratory birds. NRCS intends to offer payment incentives to landowners willing to flood existing farmed wetlands, prior converted croplands, or other lands that can provide immediate habitat for these species. Rice fields are particularly suited for this initiative. Aquiculture farms (e.g., catfish and crayfish) that have been abandoned or that could be modified or managed to provide additional habitat are also a focus, since they can easily be flooded and manipulated.< /p>
Priority Habitat Areas within and adjacent to the Flyways that enter the Gulf of Mexico will also be a focus of the program. Participating States have identified priority counties, and the main focus is the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and the Chenier Plain in Louisiana and Texas.
Target Two: WRP Lands
NRCS has the authority to determine management actions necessary to meet the wildlife objectives of WRP easements. The initial WRP phase will focus on:
- Addressing food habitat needs for species expected to be most significantly impacted by the oil spill that are likely to occur on WRP easements;
- Providing habitat features that are appropriate for the target area;
- Providing management that is not currently part of existing management regimes or constitutes an improvement; and
- Avoiding adverse impacts to existing wetland habitat on the easement area.
NRCS has identified priority habitat areas based on its WRP easement inventory. At the State level, NRCS will seek WRP landowners or partners who may be interested in managing or improving the management of their WRP lands using any of the following practices, listed in order of priority:
- Provide shallow water (0-4 inches depth) and mudflats for shorebirds (e.g. sandpipers, dowitchers) from July through October.
- Provide shallow water on moist soils for early migrating waterfowl (e.g., blue-winged teal) from August through September.
- Provide open, deep water habitats for overwintering diving ducks (e.g. scaup, redheads, canvasbacks) from October through March.
- Provide shallow water (< 12” depth) on moist soils for overwintering dabbling ducks (e.g. mallards, pintails) from October through March.
- Provide shallow water on moist soils for breeding and brood-rearing habitats for resident waterfowl (e.g. wood ducks, mottled ducks) and marsh birds from March through August.
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife
In tandem with the NRCS program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) announced in June, 2010 a major strategy to provide critical wetland habitat for migratory birds affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. With a $2.5 million investment from NFWF’s Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife , NFWF will join with Ducks Unlimited and others to establish the wetlands on farms and other private lands along the Gulf coast. These alternative habitats outside of the spill area will provide habitat for millions of migratory birds that will soon descend upon the region.
The partnership between NFWF, Ducks Unlimited and others will create and enhance tens of thousands of acres of aquatic and wetland habitat on lands outside, but adjacent to or nearby, the spill zone. Projects will be focused on the coastal plain of Louisiana and Texas. NFWF will work with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Ducks Unlimited to identify opportunities to involve agricultural producers and other landowners in the rapid creation of habitat areas.
NFWF’s Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife was made possible with proceeds from BP’s share of net revenue from oil recovered from the Deepwater Horizon site. The fund will support immediate actions to safeguard the populations of species most at risk from the Gulf oil spill, notably shorebirds, waterfowl, marsh birds and sea turtles. The Recovered Oil Fund is augmented by donations from Federal Express and Walmart.