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WCS-Led Study Says Some Arctic Nesting Bird Species Declining Near Oil Development

A new study by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), US Fish and Wildlife Service, other conservation groups and oil and gas companies found that oil development in the Arctic is impacting some bird populations by providing “subsidized housing” to predators, which nest and den around drilling infrastructure and 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 the Wildlife Conservation Society; S.J. Kendall, P. Martin and D.C. Payer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service; 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.

Oil development has attracted populations of opportunistic predators including Arctic fox, ravens, and gulls, which feed on nesting birds. The predators use oil infrastructure, which ranges from drilling platforms to road culverts, to build their nests or dens. In this study researchers found one bird species, the Lapland longspur, lost significantly more nests in areas closer to oil development than farther away. Nests beyond 5 kilometers (3.11 miles) from oil development remained unaffected by predators.

Other birds, including red and red-necked phalaropes, may also be feeling impacts from predators, though data was less strong than with longspurs. At the same time, other species tested did not show an effect. Authors believe this may be due to high natural variation in nesting success across years and between sites.

The authors monitored nearly 2,000 nests of 17 passerine and shorebird species over a four-year period. Birds from five continents migrate to the Arctic each year to nest.

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

—Joe Liebezeit of the Wildlife Conservation Society, lead author

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

WCS is engaged in separate studies in remote areas of the western Arctic, evaluating where wildlife protection would be most effective in advance of development.

Resources

  • J. R. Liebezeit, S. J. Kendall, S. Brown, C. B. Johnson, P. Martin, T. L. McDonald, D. C. Payer, C. L. Rea, B. Streever, A. M. Wildman, S. Zack (2009) Influence of human development and predators on nest survival of tundra birds, Arctic Coastal Plain, Alaska. Ecological Applications: Vol. 19, No. 6, pp. 1628-1644. doi: 10.1890/08-1661.1

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