WASHINGTON, DC, October 28, 2010 (ENS) – A coordinated effort between landowners and the U.S. Agriculture Department to protect and feed birds migrating toward the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill zone in the Gulf of Mexico has more than tripled expectations, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday.

The Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative mobilized private landowners to help create alternative and additional habitats to provide healthy food and resting areas for shorebirds, waterfowl and other birds headed for the gulf.

More than 50 million birds migrate through the Mississippi, Central, and Eastern Flyways each fall and spring.

The unprecedented effort was created by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service on June 28, when oil was still spilling from the damaged Deepwater Horizon well. Before it was capped July 19, more than four million barrels of crude oil gushed into the gulf.

Migratory water birds in the Mississippi Flyway (Photo by Gretchen Steele)

To date, the initiative has enrolled more than 470,000 acres across eight states, more than tripling its initial goal of 150,000 acres.

After landowners expressed strong interest in the program, funding was doubled to $40 million.

Secretary Vilsack said, “Private landowners play a critically important role in protecting wildlife every single day, and I am proud that so many landowners in these eight states stepped up to be a part of this unprecedented effort to increase migratory bird habitat and protect wildlife from any lingering effects from the oil spill.”

“The outpouring of support for this effort far exceeded our expectations, and it will have an impact on countless migratory bird populations for years to come,” he said.

The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting similar work on federal lands adjacent to the spill impact zone to minimize potential bird contact with contaminated areas and help address long term objectives for habitat conservation along the entire Gulf Coast.

Much of the work has been funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Recovered Oil Fund, as well as other privately donated funds.

“Providing additional food and nesting opportunities for migrating waterfowl and songbirds heading south during the fall migration is an important part of our collective effort to minimize injury to migrating birds by creating alternative habitats north of the impacted wintering and stopover habitats along the coast,” said Secretary Salazar.

The 470,000 acres under contract with this initiative are within the three flyways that pass through the Gulf of Mexico.

These lands in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas are being flooded carefully with varying water levels and planted with a variety of vegetation to provide food and habitat for the wide range of bird species that might stop during their long migrations.

Early feedback from participants shows that many bird species are using the enhanced habitat, including sandpipers, blue-winged teal, mottled ducks.

Although the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative was initially created in response to the BP oil spill, landowners are providing food when birds need it most, whether or not they are impacted by the oil.

Current drought conditions in the gulf region combined with decades of wetland losses are resulting in fewer food resources and habitat compared with previous years. In Louisiana, where the most oil came ashore, water levels in marshes are way below average.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has started working on a three-year effort with other entities, including Mississippi State University, to determine the initiative’s effectiveness through monitoring the number and species of birds which utilize the habitat created. The first progress report will be available in spring 2011.

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