Montana's population of American white pelicans might want to change its winter migration destination.
The large birds with black-tipped wings, classified by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as a "species of concern," typically point their foot-long orange bills toward the Gulf Coast come fall. But the largest oil spill in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico has scientists and bird lovers worried that some of the pelicans might not make it back next year.
"It just depends on how long this mess lasts," says Paul Hendricks, a zoologist with the Montana Natural Heritage Program. "It seems like even if they get the well capped here relatively soon, the oil's going to be circulating around for a while."
Montana is home to four breeding colonies of American white pelicans. Two are in eastern Montana, at the Medicine Lake and Bowdoin national wildlife refuges. Two more are along the Rocky Mountain Front, at Canyon Ferry and Arod lakes. The eastern colonies have long been established, while the central Montana colonies were initiated largely by volunteer efforts in the early 1990s.
In addition to white pelicans, Hendricks says Montana's population of cormorants could be affected by the spill, which began April 20 when a BP oil rig exploded and has since gushed about a half-million barrels of oil into the Gulf.
Amy Cilimburg, Montana Audubon's director of bird conservation and global warming outreach, worries Montana's population of black terns could be harmed as well. Fortunately, she says, most of Montana's waterfowl and songbirds head to locations west of the Gulf of Mexico, if scientists know where they go at all.
No matter the degree to which Montana's migrating bird populations are affected, Cilimburg says the spill should serve as a reminder of the interconnectedness of things—and of the real threats to birds.
"It sure is a further indication of why we should move away from fossil fuels and address climate change," she says. "A couple birds getting whacked by a windmill is just way less impactful than what's going on down there."