Arctic Oil Beckons Nest Predators

September 8, 2009

A WCS-led study says some nesting bird species are declining near oil development in the Arctic. Infrastructure from oil drilling, coupled with edible garbage, creates “subsidized housing” for as opportunistic predators like foxes and gulls.

New nests are cropping up in a haven for millions of birds at the top of the Earth. But these nests aren’t home to the migrants that fly from five continents to breed here each summer. Instead, they give shelter to the Arctic foxes, ravens, and gulls that feast on those seasonal residents.

A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and other groups reveals how oil development in the Artic provides “subsidized housing” to nest predators. The predators build their nests and dens on drilling platforms, road culverts, and other oil infrastructure. They supplement their diets with garbage and nesting birds.

The study appears in the September issue of the journal Ecological Applications. Authors include Joe Liebezeit and Steve Zack of WCS; S.J. Kendall, P. Martin and D.C. Payer of FWS; S. Brown of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences; C.B. Johnson and A.M. Wildman of ABR, Inc; T.L. McDonald of West, Inc.; C.L. Rea of ConocoPhillips Alaska, Inc.; and B. Streever of BP Exploration (Alaska), Inc.

The study’s authors monitored nearly 2,000 nests of 17 passerine and shorebird species over a four-year period. They found that Lapland longspurs with nests close to oil development were particularly hard hit. Longspur nests beyond three miles from oil development remained unaffected by predators. Other birds, including red and red-necked phalaropes, may also suffer impacts from predators. Some species tested did not show an effect, which the scientists attribute to high natural variation in nesting success across years and between sites.

The impetus for this study stemmed from previous evidence suggesting predators have increased in the oil fields near Prudhoe Bay.

“This is the first study specifically designed to evaluate the so-called oil ‘footprint’ effect in the Arctic on nesting birds,” said lead author Joe Liebezeit, of WCS. “The study was also unique in that it was a collaborative effort among conservation groups, industry, and federal scientists.”

In addition to the breeding birds, vast herds of caribou and polar bears still live in the immense landscape surrounding Prudhoe Bay, which is largely undisturbed by humans. WCS is conducting separate studies in remote areas of the western Arctic, evaluating where wildlife protection would be most effective in advance of development.

“Our interest is in ensuring a balance of both wildlife protection in key areas and helping industry minimize potential impacts to wildlife as they begin to pursue development in western Arctic Alaska,” said Steve Zack, coordinator of WCS’s Arctic Program. “This study helps inform industry on some consequences of development.”

Read the press release: WCS-Led Study Says Some Arctic Nesting Bird Species Declining Near Oil Development

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