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Gulf farmers asked to flood fields for migrating birds

The U.S. says it will pay landowners in the region to create nesting grounds in the hope that birds will avoid oil-contaminated habitats. Up to $20 million could be spent.

June 29, 2010|By Andrew Zajac, Tribune Washington Bureau

A federal conservation agency said Monday that it would begin paying some gulf region farmers and ranchers to flood their fields so that migratory birds can find alternative rest and nesting grounds to oil-fouled habitats.

The Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative will pay to use up to 150,000 acres of land "to provide feeding, loafing and resting areas for migratory birds," according to an announcement by the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The program applies mainly to former wetlands and low-lying land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas. Conservation officials are hoping to attract birds to safe areas before they land on shores and wetlands contaminated by the massive oil spill.

Landowners would be expected to flood fields and promote the growth of vegetation favored by migratory birds, or to enhance existing wetlands on their properties, for three to five years, said NRCS spokeswoman Chris Coulon.

Rice fields and fish farms are particularly suited to the initiative.

For birds, "it's an alternative so they'll have a lower probability of landing in areas affected by the oil spill," Coulon said.

Up to $20 million has been allocated for the initiative, but how much actually is spent depends on farmers' response, she said.

Coulon said she expected that many of the farmers who will sign up already work with NRCS on soil erosion control, pest management, water quality improvement and other conservation projects.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has fouled marshes and coastal areas relied on by birds and other wildlife, including the ecologically sensitive Chandeleur Islands, the second-oldest wildlife refuge in the national system.

The gulf region sits beneath one of the world's major migratory flyways, with about 1 billion birds from more than 300 species passing through annually, said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.

Sandpipers, among the earliest arrivals, usually reach the gulf from arctic breeding grounds by about July 4, Butcher said.

"None of this is guaranteed to work," Butcher said. "We're expecting that this will work at least a little bit. We're hoping that it'll help a lot."

azajac@latimes.com

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