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Illinois hunting and fishing

Oil sheen is seen on the surface of the water in the wetlands of southern La., near Grand Isle, La., Tuesday, June, 15, 2010. The oil spill damaged less waterfowl habitat than expected. Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register

“We dodged a bullet”

November 20, 2010 at 09:01 PM

The State Journal-Register

Louisiana’s duck season opened a week ago to lots of birds and very little oil.

“For the most part, the marshes, ponds and lakes are in excellent shape,” Says Tom Moorman, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited’s southern region.
“We dodged a bullet,” he says. “I guess that’s what I’m telling you.”

Conservationists and waterfowl enthusiasts feared the worst ever since the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded and sank about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast last April 20.

Eleven workers were killed and 17 injured in the explosion and fire.

The resulting spill poured 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was finally halted.

By contrast, oil production for the entire state of Illinois totals 9.4 million barrels annually.

Sportsmen and environmentalists feared summer storms would push oil into Louisiana’s sensitive coastal marshes where millions of ducks spend the winter.

But worst-case scenarios failed to materialize, at least as far as the marshes are concerned.

Moorman estimates that 3,000 to 6,000 acres of marsh were directly affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, out of 2 million acres.

“That’s relatively small, even though it seems like a fairly large area,” he says.

Inland freshwater marshes remain in good shape.

Still unknown is how the spill might have affected offshore winter habitat of diving ducks like scaup.

“That’s the only thing I would point to as an area of uncertainty,” Moorman says. “We don’t know what, if any, impact the spill may have had on food resources.”

Scaup are diving ducks that like to feed on the dwarf surf clam.

If oil killed the clams, scaup would have to search for new habitat.

Illinois hunting and fishing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the population of lesser and greater scaup at 4.2 million in 2009 with 250,000 to 1.4 million of those birds wintering off the coast of Louisiana.

To prepare for the worst, government agencies and private groups like DU worked to secure back-up habitat for ducks.

Flooded harvested rice fields in the coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana are providing 79,000 acres of additional habitat.

Moorman says his organization tried to focus its efforts close to the main trouble spots.

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service working with other partners cast a wider net, enrolling 500,000 acres, mostly harvested agricultural fields, to serve as additional habitat in eight states.

Even though the oil spill damage does not seem to be as bad as feared – at least for ducks and duck hunters – the additional habitat will come in handy because lack of rain has dried up some areas ducks normally use.

“We had a really dry fall,” Moorman says. “It’s one of the drier times I’ve seen in 20 years.

“It’s pretty crispy down here,”

A lot of work remains, because Louisiana’s coastal marshes have been eroding away for decades.

That degradation is due to a number of factors including levees that take Mississippi River sediments out to sea instead of letting it recharge the marshes – offsetting losses to erosion.

Moorman says the oil spill did draw attention to the plight of coastal marshes and the need for restoration.

“There have been lots of discussions, including Congress and the President,” he says.

Once damages have been assessed and a settlement reached with British Petroleum – the owner of the Deepwater Horizon – a fund possibly could be set up to pay for coastal restoration, Moorman says.

“People across the country probably did get an idea of what is at stake down here,” he says. “And our goal is to keep that attention on the coast because it is so important not only regionally, but nationally.

“If there is a silver lining in an event like this, this must be it.”

Where are the ducks?

Ducks are arriving in Louisiana, but some Illinois hunters are still waiting.

A survey by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimated 1.62 million ducks already arriving in Louisiana, higher than last year’s count of 1.34 million.

The long-term average is 2 million.

Mallards, pintails, gadwall and blue-winged teal are arriving in the highest numbers so far.

“There are always some birds that go through first,” says Ray Marshalla, waterfowl biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“Some say the birds are still up north,” he says. “But there are 1.6 million birds down there now.”

Still, Marshalla says hunters could be in for an influx of waterfowl because temperatures in the Prairie Pothole Region of the north-central United States and Canada have dropped well below freezing.

“They should be froze-up,” he says. “And there should be some movement (of ducks) by (now).”

Temperatures on the duck breeding grounds were expected to range from teens to below zero. That means even deeper bodies of water would be covered with ice.

“When it gets that cold this late, a lot of them move into Illinois,” Marshalla says.

But, hunters know there are no guarantees.

A poor year for moist-soil plants – those annual weeds that provide energy-laden seeds for ducks – may mean some ducks keep going south.

Fall tillage that has buried waste grain also could be a factor.

“Some fields are completely plowed,” he says. “There’s not a stalk of corn out there.”

Some ducks, especially mallards, feed on waste grain when moist soil plants are scarce.

Marshalla says ducks pushed into Illinois hopefully will stay longer than they did in 2009.

“Last year, we basically had no ducks and suddenly they arrived,” he says. “And then a week later we had ice.”

Gulf Coast ducks by the numbers

*Number of ducks that spend the winter on the Gulf coast: 13 million

*Number of ducks that winter on the southeast coast of Louisiana: 4.7 million

*Number of ducks that winter along the coast of Mississippi and Mobile Bay Alabama: 20,000

*Diving ducks that winter along the panhandle of Florida to Tampa Bay: 100,000 – 80,000 are redhead ducks.

*Number of lesser and greater scaup that winter off the coast of Louisiana: up to 1.4 million.

Source: Ducks Unlimited

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

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