Outside the Individual

No question, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, in addition to killing 11 people, was a serious environmental event. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the environmentalist wackos would have had you believe, but it was bad enough. The negative effects will be felt for a while to come, not just in the environment but also in the Gulf Coast economy.

There was plenty of ink about the leaking oil itself, but in any big oil-related accident, it’s the oil-coated critters that get the weepiest news coverage. Some reporter stands on a beach beside a guy in a yellow slicker suit holding a gooey pelican and gushes about how 600 other birds have been “rescued” and are currently being cleaned so they can once again be natural, wild and free.

I can’t think of a more pointless way to spend manpower and money.

Jim Spencer, editor of Trapper & Predator CallerYes, it was a terrible thing that these birds and turtles and mammals were mired in the oil. The figure I heard most recently was that 30,000 oil-fouled critters had been found, mostly gulls and brown pelicans. That sounds like a lot, and if you piled them all in one place it would be a lot. But in the overall scheme of nature, it really is small potatoes. The number of gulls, pelicans and other wildlife in the Gulf and surrounding shoreline is staggering, and even if the actual figure is 10 times the 30,000 that was quoted, it’s still just a drop in the bucket and the loss can be quickly regained.

What’s not a small matter, though, is the damage to the coastal marshes and estuaries caused by the oil. The marshes are already recovering as I write this, some 115 days after the explosion, but biologists and researchers say there will be lingering effects in these areas for several years.

That’s where the money and manpower should have been going throughout the whole 100-odd-day ordeal — toward coastline protection and cleanup, rather than cleaning up oil-coated animals. It’s much more effective to concentrate on keeping habitat healthy so it can remain productive than to engage in a heartfelt but woefully misguided effort to clean, rehabilitate and release critters that have been oil-fouled.

I’m not trying to say these oil-beslimed animals should have been ignored. Nope. I’m saying they should have been humanely killed, and the money and manpower spent where it might have done some good. The hard, cold truth is that rehabilitating oiled birds, reptiles and mammals is a monumental waste of resources.

You want a for-instance? OK. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, 357 oiled sea otters were brought in for treatment. Of those, 197 survived long enough to be cleaned and released — at a cost of $82,000 per otter. Forty-five of the released otters were fitted with radio-tracking collars, and subsequent studies found that after eight months, 12 of the 45 were dead. Nine more were missing, for a total of 21 out of 45 — nearly half. That brings the per-surviving-otter cost up to about $150,000, give or take a few thousand.

At the same time, about 1,600 sea birds (mostly gulls) were also captured, de-oiled and rehabilitated. Half of them were returned to the wild at a cost of nearly $32,000 per bird. I couldn’t find any survival data on the Valdez birds, but other similar rehab studies document a survival rate of less than 10 percent. So all of a sudden we’re talking about $320,000 sea gulls. Or more.

That’s some pretty expensive wildlife management. The money spent cleaning creatures likely to die soon anyway could be better spent designing safety systems, investing in oil-containment research, or paying for additional emergency personnel to respond to spills. Or, like I’ve already suggested, to clean up the oil so Mother Nature can replenish the wild stock in the old-fashioned, time-tested, efficient way.

It’s not surprising that the well-meaning-but-uninformed public gets all caught up in this hand-on business of rehabilitating individual animals, but the science of wildlife management cannot afford to concern itself with individuals, except in the case of extremely rare species.

It’s a lesson trappers already know. We realize that annually removing some of the members of a species does not cause problems for that species, but rather creates room in the habitat for more young to be born to replenish the numbers.

We’ve been doing that very thing, as a matter of fact, for more than 200 years.

I wish the rest of the world would catch up with us.

Jim Spencer, of Calico Rock, Ark., is executive editor of T&PC. To contact Jim, send e-mails to modernmountainman@gmail.com.

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