The federal government has proposed removing American mink to help boost populations of one species of seabird who still hasn’t recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.
It’s been decades since oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the sound in one of the worst environmental disasters ever. However, as of 2008, there were still only an estimated 100 pigeon guillemot living in the Naked Island group (Naked, Storey and Peak islands) in the middle of the sound, which was considered their main breeding ground and home to a quarter of all of their nests.
Thousands died as a direct result of the spill and they continued to suffer the consequences of residual oil for at least a decade after, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
The pigeon guillemot is currently the only marine bird species that remains affected by the 1989 spill and is listed as “not recovering” on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council’s Injured Resources List, according to the FWS.
Their main problem now is predation of eggs, chicks and adults by American mink, so the FWS has proposed trapping and shooting them to help the birds recover. This plan will involve spending three years removing mink and another two years monitoring and removing mink in nesting areas. These efforts are estimated to lead to 1,000 pigeon guillemot in 15 years, at which point they’ll be considered “recovered.”
While mink are native to the area, no one is sure whether they are native to the Naked Island group, but it is clear that their populations soared there following the spill, and that they’re now causing problems for birds, reports Grist.
David Irons, seabird coordinator with the FWS, told the Alaska Dispatch that the reasons for the decline in the birds don’t matter anymore; because they were initially affected by the spill it’s still up to the trustees to restore the population:
Figuring out how many mink to remove is “the hard part,” Irons said, as the exact number inhabiting the cluster of islands is unknown, although their numbers are estimated to range roughly from 200-300.
By removing the mink, several other species of birds that nest on the islands would benefit as well, Iron said. Parakeet auklets, tufted puffins and horned puffins have also been on the decline in the past decades, but those birds are not on the Trustee Council’s list of affected animals.
“Right now Naked Island is a desert of birds — it used to be a hot spot,” Irons said, adding that the Prince William Sound used to be home to 700 parakeet auklets, whereas now only around 40 remain.
According to the environmental assessment, there is another alternative, which is to do nothing. However, that option is expected to lead to a further decline in these birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be accepting public comments until August 17, 2013.
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