BRETON NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, La. -- Nesting season is in full swing for brown pelicans on Breton Island, the southern end of a chain of barrier marshes stretched along Louisiana's Gulf Coast.
Prospective parents soar above their tiny kingdom, scouring for possible roosts and diving to catch fish.
But oil gushing out of an exploded rig far offshore looms ominously, threatening to soak the island in crude.
The refuge is one of the areas being most closely watched by conservationists and government officials as oil continues flowing from the well beneath BP PLC's Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20. For now, the oil is still a ways offshore and drifting away from Breton Island, according to today's forecast. But officials say the crude could creep closer to the shore within the next days.
There have been no confirmed reports yet of oil on any islands in the refuge, Chuck Underwood of the Fish and Wildlife Service said today.
"At this point, things look pretty calm and pretty quiet out here," Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the Audubon Society's Louisiana Coastal Initiative, said yesterday as she surveyed Breton Island. For now, she said, "it's nice to see that the birds are still behaving normally."
Breton Island and the Chandeleur Islands to the north make up the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 after he learned that birds and their eggs were being destroyed there. Roosevelt visited the refuge in 1915.
Pelicans are not the only denizens of this hotbed of biodiversity. There are also black skimmers, American oystercatchers, sandwich terns, black-bellied plovers and many other species.
Several other vulnerable bird species nest on the islands or migrate through them, Driscoll said. Brown pelicans were recently removed from the endangered species list. Audubon lists other species on the refuge -- the least tern and the piping plover -- as species of global concern.
As of yesterday, federal officials said the birds nesting on Breton Island appeared to be in good shape. There are 1,300 brown pelican nests on the island this year, said Jack Bohannan, refuge manager of the southeast Louisiana refuges.
About 200 royal terns and sandwich tern nests were also found on the island, said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for Fish and Wildlife's Southeast Region.
"All the eggs were fine," MacKenzie said after he and other officials visited the island yesterday to look for possible damage from a storm surge.
Thin orange line
Floating orange booms are in place around parts of Breton Island, the only barrier between encroaching crude and the shore. But the boom doesn't surround the refuge, and its effectiveness is uncertain. The barriers don't always stay in place, and high waves could easily carry crude over the low vinyl walls.
About 8,500 feet of boom has been strategically placed around the refuge to protect the most vulnerable areas, MacKenzie said. In some places -- the brown pelican nesting grounds on north Breton Island, for example -- the boom has been doubled for added protection.
"You can't boom the entire 60-mile-long refuge," MacKenzie said. "It'd be very difficult to boom that much, so you've got to identify the priority areas, so that's what we've done." He added that officials are planning to add more boom around parts of the refuge.
BP is responsible for setting up the boom, but it has been consulting with the service about the best places to put it.
"We do what we can with what's available technically," MacKenzie said. "I hope it works."
Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, questioned what he said was scant protection for the birds.
"This island is not adequately protected," he said during a visit yesterday.
Bracing for the worst
Birds on the refuge suffered a major blow when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Areas of beach and marsh were decimated, and much of the islands' vegetation was damaged or destroyed.
Now, officials and conservationists are girding for another disaster.
"The worst scenario would be if there was a lot of oil and an overwash," Driscoll said. It's difficult to know what the impact will be at this point, she said, but she fears that any oil reaching the birds could damage their nests.
"Egg shells are porous in order to breathe," she said, "and that means any oil is not a good thing."
Wildlife officials sometimes coat eggs of invasive bird populations with oil in an effort to prevent them from hatching and to reduce their populations.
Should oil hit, federal officials have a backup plan to capture and rehabilitate wildlife, but "that's a worst-case scenario," MacKenzie said, "because catching wildlife can be fatal."
Officials will concentrate their efforts on the nesting pelicans, MacKenzie added.
"We can't protect all the birds," he said. "We are focused on the nesting brown pelicans because they are a stationary resource."