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How Endangered Species Are Faring In The Gulf

Last November, the brown pelican was removed from the endangered species list.

The bird, iconic in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf, was recovering well in the decades since the pesticide DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. The Interior Department estimated the population in November at 650,000 birds throughout North and Central America.

But now the population of brown pelicans in the Gulf is being threatened again, by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Doug Inkley, a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation, tells Terry Gross that the disaster couldn't have come at a worse time for the species because the brown pelicans are currently in breeding season.

"The adult pelicans can get oil on them if they're still able to fly and get back to the nest and then they incubate their eggs," he explains. "Then they can unintentionally get oil from their feathers onto the eggs and that's toxic to the eggs. It will kill them."

Inkley explains that adult pelicans also can become trapped by the oil while foraging for food for their young.

"It means not being able to fly and get back to the nest -- either the bird dies or hopefully is caught and tried to be cleaned up and released again -- but by the time it's released and back in the wild, its chicks will be dead."

Inkley describes the efforts to save the population of pelicans in the Gulf by cleaning and moving the oil-covered birds to different locations -- but says the process is challenging.

"Birds just like you or I, they know their home territory," he says. "When you go out on the street, you know where to go for food. You know where to go to sleep at night. Well if you take a bird -- you've captured it, you've cleaned it, you move it 500 miles away and you release it -- it doesn't know where the best feeding areas are. It doesn't know where to roost at night in a safe place away from predators. So it really is very challenging. But I believe that we have to make every effort that we can. After all, we're the cause of this problem in the first place. The oil spilling -- it was mankind that brought it upon them and we have an obligation to try and help them out."

Inkley is the National Wildlife Federation's senior scientist. He researches the impact of climate change on fish and wildlife. He was the lead author of the 2004 report "Global Climate Change and Wildlife in North America."

Brown pelicans stained with oil on Cat Island in Barataria Bay, La.
Win McNamee
Getty Images

Interview Highlights

On the possibility of entire species being wiped out

"We are probably pushing closer to the brink of extinction several species. In particular, I'm talking about the sea turtles. I have five species that are threatened that frequent the Gulf of Mexico. And the problem with an endangered or threatened species is that every individual counts. So a dead sea turtle, especially an adult that may take 20 years to mature, is removing an animal from the breeding population for a very long time."

On the vulnerability of sea turtles

"One reason for the vulnerability of sea turtles is that [this oil spill] is right in the middle of where they frequent. They're there all the time. Two: Studies have shown that the sea turtles do not recognize oil for what it is and they do not know how to avoid it. So they'll just surface in the oil as if it were the natural water surface. Three: The tar balls that float in the water can have an appearance of looking somewhat like jellyfish, and many sea turtles eat jellyfish. So the problem is that the sea turtles actually ingest the oil when they're going about their normal processes. And this right now is the nesting season. They're naturally crawling up on the beaches; they have been for the last, probably month or two, depositing their nests of about 100 eggs and then going out to sea. Well, those hatchlings are beginning to hatch out of the eggs now and crawl into the Gulf."

What makes sea turtles special

"They're such neat critters. If you've ever seen one ... they crawl up on the beach -- this prehistoric-looking creature, which it really is, and lay its eggs laboriously -- about the size of a pingpong ball -- and then crawl back into the sea. It was something that I obviously cherish and remember from my childhood."

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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