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Wildlife at Risk : Pollution Endangers U.S. Refuges

Times Staff Writer

In mid-state New York, a muddy creek meanders through a hazardous dump on its way to a national wildlife refuge, where it provides the main source of water for eagles, herons and migratory birds.

In Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, pesticides sprayed on farmlands from the air drift over a refuge for birds. In 1983, several Franklin’s gulls were found dead on the refuge. They had eaten cicadas coated with pesticide.

At a southern Illinois refuge, birds dust their wings in dirt contaminated with toxic PCBs and mate in a heavily wooded area believed to be sprinkled with hazardous wastes.

Established in Early 1900s

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Many of the nation’s refuges, established in the early 1900s to conserve dwindling wildlife, now face industrial, agricultural and municipal pollution that threaten the very creatures they are designed to attract and protect.

At stake are more than 70 species that are struggling back from the brink of extinction on refuge lands. Migratory birds, the historic beneficiary of the refuge system, are dropping ominously in population, their once wide-open habitat replaced by “waterfowl ghettos.”

The federal government, limited by inexperience and budget constraints, is scrambling to assess the scope and seriousness of the contamination before it causes widespread death, deformities or inability to reproduce. Systematic monitoring has yet to be done, and refuge managers sometimes wait more than a year for overburdened government laboratories to analyze the tissues of their dead wildlife.

The ultimate cost of cleaning the refuges could be many millions of dollars. But the cost of not cleaning them could be incalculable--the loss of scores of species, from the tiny swallowtail butterfly in Florida to the endangered kit fox in California.

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434 Refuges

Larger in total size than the national parks, the 90-million-acre refuge system is required to protect 34 species of fish, 147 varieties of mammals and 459 kinds of birds in addition to various insects and reptiles. The 434 refuges are run by professional wildlife managers and biologists who are charged not only with ensuring a healthy habitat for the wildlife but, at some, with managing recreational activities that include boating and hunting.

“We have enough refuges to maintain remnants of the (wildlife) population but not near enough to maintain birds or wildlife like we have known them historically,” said Robert Smith, a migratory bird branch chief at the U.S. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. “I see refuges becoming more and more like natural museums--little remnants of the past. They should be managed that way and kept clean.”

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey earlier this year found that 85 of the refuges are threatened by contaminants. At Stillwater National Wildlife Management Area in Nevada, for example, mercury levels in fish have been found at up to four times the maximum suggested for human consumption. Bird and fish die-offs are not uncommon. In 1983, workers counted 50,000 dead ducks on the grounds.

But at most of the troubled refuges, there is little or no evidence of widespread harm--at least not so far. Rather, there are red flags: heavy metals or industrial compounds in the soil or water. The poisons move silently up the food chain, from plants to insects to fish and, ultimately, to birds and mammals.

The deadly cycle has already been completed at Central California’s Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, where birds produce grotesquely deformed offspring. Kesterson became the “modern-day Silent Spring,” sounding the alarm about the health of the refuge system just as Rachel Carson’s 1961 book dramatized the devastation to wildlife from pesticides and herbicides, said Bill Reffalt, a refuge specialist for the Wilderness Society.

“Kesterson tipped the scale and made the Fish and Wildlife Service realize we have a problem,” said Reffalt, a former refuge administrator for the service. “They just haven’t uncovered the full extent of it yet.”

Selenium Can Kill

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Kesterson’s marshes were fed by agricultural drain water filled with heavy metals, including selenium, a naturally occurring element that at low levels is harmless and even essential to human health but at higher concentrations is capable of killing and causing mutations.

Five years ago, abnormally high levels of selenium were found in mosquito fish at Kesterson. Two years later, the element was detected in birds. Several species of birds produced deformed offspring, including birds without eyes or wings or feet or with organs protruding through their tissues.

California health officials in 1984 warned the public not to eat ducks from Kesterson and later issued an advisory to restrict consumption of ducks from a nearby refuge. Six months ago, the contaminants were found in small rodents at Kesterson. Wildlife service officials now fear the endangered kit fox may be the next victim.

Elevated levels of selenium have now been documented near or within 20 other national refuges, including Stillwater, where the element was found in dead birds.

Although about 80% of the nation’s refuges are designed to protect birds, the migratory waterfowl population plummeted last fall to a record low since aerial counting began 31 years ago. Wildlife managers estimated the population had dipped to 62 million, down from more than 100 million birds in the 1950s. Drought in the Canadian prairie region and the northern United States is considered a prime culprit.

“The only thing we know is that waterfowl populations are going down at a rate that concerns everybody,” said Dr. Milton Friend, director of the National Wildlife Health Laboratory in Madison, Wis. “We certainly know that habitat loss has been very great in this country and many people believe that loss is a primary reason for the decline. But you’re talking about a very complicated biological system.”

Scientists suspect that contaminants weaken the birds, make them more susceptible to disease and reduce their ability to reproduce. Friend said evidence from Europe, Africa and Japan shows that avian diseases have first occurred after waste-water discharges into marshes. And in the Sacramento Valley, avian botulism breaks out when irrigation water is used for raising the level of the marsh.

‘Could Lose 100,000'

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“It’s not unusual to see a die-off with 1,000 birds dying a day and 25,000 to 50,000 dying before it ends,” Friend said. “You could lose 100,000 birds in a month.”

Friend, who studied the effects of sublethal amounts of industrial compounds and pesticides in mallard ducks, found “rather dramatic results” by comparing the mortality of birds exposed both to the chemicals and a virus with birds exposed only to the virus. Although the birds exposed to the chemicals did not become outwardly sick, nearly half of them died a month later when they were exposed to a virus, Friend said. Only about 6% of the birds exposed only to the virus died.

Birds that move from one refuge to another carry the diseases with them. Friend noted that California’s Central Valley has lost 90% of its wetlands but still must accommodate millions of migratory birds that winter there. The birds themselves then foul their own crowded environment.

‘Waterfowl Ghettos’

“What you begin to get are waterfowl ghettos,” Friend said.

Some refuges established in pristine, remote areas must now cope with encroaching development and contamination of nearby water sources. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in central New York state is bisected by Interstate 90, a major thoroughfare for tankers carrying chemicals, oil and wastes. Eight miles upstream is an operating landfill and a dump so polluted that it is on the federal Superfund list for cleanup.

Black Brook, the main water supply for the refuge, runs between the dumps before it empties into Montezuma. In 1979, refuge biologists noted that it emptied into the refuge directly under a tower used at the time to release young bald eagles into the wild.

Sediment Tested

Tests of sediment on the creek’s bottom showed elevated levels of copper, mercury, iron, selenium, chromium, nickel and zinc. Samples from the dump itself revealed the presence of such pesticides as DDT, which causes birds to lay eggs whose shells are so fragile that they break during nesting.

“The threat was imminent then,” said Grady E. Hocutt, the refuge manager. So he joined state environmental officials in devising requirements to contain the wastes and prevent their leaching into the brook. He also helped negotiate conditions for future dumping.

During a recent visit, hundreds of gray and white screaming gulls feasted on the garbage as it was dumped from trucks. Plastic trash bags clung to the branches of trees. A sour odor pervaded some spots. “The potential is here for problems,” Hocutt said.

The refuge system was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, who established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida in 1903 to protect egrets, herons and other nesting birds that were being killed in large numbers so that their plumes could be used in women’s hats.

Drought, hunting and the drainage and development of wetlands contributed to the demise of many animals at the turn of the century. The bison had almost disappeared by 1895, and antelope and elk were dwindling in number. By 1914, the passenger pigeon no longer existed.

Over the following decades, more and more refuges were established to protect these animals. But often they were created on land “that nobody else wanted,” said Jim Gillett, chief of refuge management in Washington.

Manipulated Wastelands

Wildlife managers manipulated wastelands into wildlife oases by planting grasslands to provide nesting cover for waterfowl, building dikes to create shallow marshes and harvesting crops to feed and attract the animals. Wildlife soon gravitated to these spots, returning year after year in greater numbers.

But despite their new look, many refuges bear the legacy of their past. Some are former industrial or military sites whose past activities include the making or dumping of dangerous materials. Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois, described by one environmentalist as a “time bomb about to go off,” was used to make industrial chemicals and military explosives before the Fish and Wildlife Service took over the land after World War II.

‘Area Contaminated’

Surrounding one scenic setting, an eight-foot-high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire is posted with a sign that warns, “Area Contaminated by Industrial Chemicals.” Behind the fence, the ground is littered with rusted batteries and broken glass. Male bobwhite quails call to each other in their two-syllable whistles to claim the territory as their own; orioles peer out from the tree branches. On the ground, plastic garbage cans of soil samples await laboratory analysis.

The land is saturated with polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs. The industrial compound, which accumulates in fatty tissues, has also been discovered in one of the lakes. The fish, which bald eagles eat, have been found with the poison in their tissues. About two acres of the 43,550-acre refuge is now a Superfund site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the section of the Interior Department that operates the refuges, first uncovered many of their troubles in a survey in 1981 and 1982. But the survey results coincided with former Interior Secretary James G. Watt’s drive to promote money-making activities at refuges. The study, which described as threats some of the refuge activities that Watt was promoting, was eventually made public in 1983.

‘Action Plans’

The Fish and Wildlife Service has now asked the 85 refuges threatened by contamination to submit “action plans” for further monitoring, evaluation or cleanup. Officials hope to charge the polluters the cost. But in many cases, the polluter is the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which administers irrigation projects, and the bureau, also part of the Interior Department, is considered to wield more clout within the department than the wildlife service.

Despite budgetary pressures, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to increase spending for studying contamination from $15.5 million this year to $17.9 million in 1987. An additional $1 million has been earmarked this year for a task force established by Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel to study pollution from agricultural runoff at 10 refuges and nine other Interior Department sites.

The $2.4-million hike for refuge-contaminant evaluation would allow a “little bit of work” next year on the 38 most threatened refuges, said Robert Shallenberger, chief of resource management in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refuge division. “But it really depends on how far the money goes.”

Not Always Problem

Hodel noted that some of the threats identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service may never have an impact. “Not every threat is a problem,” he said.

But a staff member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles the Interior Department’s budget said the proposed $2.4-million increase for contaminants represents only half of what is needed. He said Congress may provide the rest.

“The (wildlife) service has taken the first step,” said the staff member. “But it’s interesting that the budget request doesn’t include any money for actual cleanup, and that some of these sites have been identified for a long time as having contaminants.”

Up to $150 Million

For Kesterson alone, estimates of cleanup costs range all the way from $2 million to $150 million.

The 1986 survey by the Fish and Wildlife Service divided the troubled refuges into three categories: nine where evidence indicated the need for corrective action; 29 where there was direct evidence of contamination but little was known about its dimensions, and the rest where there was indirect evidence of contamination on or near the refuge.

The refuges in the first category include one in Seal Beach, Calif., that is closed to the public because it sits inside the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. A survey found that contaminants had been dumped on the 1,100-acre site before the military turned it over to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972, and no harm to wildlife has been documented. If further studies find persisting contamination, the Defense Department would have to pay for the cleanup.

The refuge, home to at least four endangered species, is surrounded by oil derricks, a Navy pistol range, dozens of bunkers and magazines where explosives are stored. On a recent day, a visit to the nesting ground of an endangered bird had to be called off because the Navy was conducting shooting practice.

In Desert’s Midst

Federal officials placed Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, located about 120 miles east of San Diego, in the second category of refuges to be evaluated. Situated at the edge of a startlingly blue sea in the midst of the desert, the refuge is home to wintering waterfowl with elevated levels of selenium, nickel, arsenic and lead.

Federal and state officials attribute the pollution to agricultural drain water and two rivers filled with pesticides, industrial wastes and municipal sewage that feed into the sea. State health authorities earlier this year warned the public to limit consumption of fish from the sea and advised children and women of childbearing years to avoid it altogether.

Bill Henry, a biologist at the refuge, is determined to preserve the endangered creatures, not just to protect the public from them. “To me, wildlife is like art,” he said. “Each species is just another little chink in the chain of life and, without them, life would be pretty mundane.”


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