The Deepwater Horizon disaster may have killed thousands of birds in the Gulf of Mexico and no one knows about it, say experienced wildlife rescuers. The reason: The experts were not allowed to go look for live oiled birds in the areas where they were most likely to be found.
Instead they were assigned to less urgent duties, or never called in at all.
Meanwhile the job of searching for birds in need of rescue went to inexperienced federal and state employees — fisheries biologists, firefighters, people who had never touched a bird before, much less one coated in oil.
One pair of federal employees spent two hours pursuing a single oiled-up pelican that eluded them every time. They gave up when night fell.
"This is the worst screwed-up response I've ever been on," said Rebecca Dmytryk, the founder of a group called WildRescue, who has worked on saving birds from oil spills in Louisiana, Ecuador and California.
"I'm just at a loss for why this was allowed to happen," said Lee Fox of Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota. "I thought these people were on the side of the wildlife."
To the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the assignment is called "wildlife reconnaissance and capture activity,'' said Jeff Fleming of the federal agency. Rescuing oiled birds is "one of the tasks our biologists typically perform in a response such as this. It's a common role our trained biologists fill."
He said the agency must handle the bird rescue duties itself, with an assist from other federal and state officials, because of "our migratory bird responsibilities under the law." Federal law has given special protection to migratory birds since 1918.
That leaves people like Jay Holcomb on the sidelines — even though Holcomb, president of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, has been saving birds from oil spills since 1971. During the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, Holcomb oversaw the entire bird search and rescue program in Prince William Sound, the largest of its kind ever attempted, involving about 50 boats. He has also worked on spills in Africa, Spain and the Galapagos Islands.
Yet on this spill, instead of searching for birds in need of rescue, "we've been assigned to respond to hotline calls," Holcomb said. "We've been completely kept out of it."
BP hired a 4-year-old Texas company called Wildlife Response Services to oversee the rescue and rehabilitation of birds, turtles and any other animals hurt by the spill. The owner, Rhonda Murgatroyd, starred in a television ad for BP touting the oil company's response to the spill.
Murgatroyd said she has worked on spills across the gulf coast for the past decade. She said federal agency employees were assigned bird rescue duties because Holcomb and the other wildlife rehabilitation experts "didn't have the personnel to go out and rescue all the birds."
It was more important for those experts to oversee cleaning the oiled birds and helping them recover, she said, a position that Fleming echoed.
Murgatroyd is convinced the system she set up has worked well.
"I don't know why anyone would question that," she said.
As of Friday, the joint BP-Coast Guard task force reported they had collected 7,568 birds, 4,212 of them visibly oiled. More than 5,500 were dead. Not one was collected from offshore.
Dmytryk said she and her co-workers begged for permission to go out to the other offshore rigs in the gulf to look for sick and injured birds that were too weak to make it to shore. But they were turned down. Not even Holcomb could get permission.
"They said for safety reasons we couldn't do it," Holcomb said. "There was not a lot of interest in using our expertise."
Instead, Dmytryk was assigned to scour beaches and marshes to collect birds that were dead already, which she regarded as a waste of her experience and knowledge. Holcomb gave up and instead oversaw the cleaning and rehabilitation of birds brought in by the federal employees.
The same thing happened to Heidi Stout, a veterinarian who is director of Tri-State Bird Rescue.
"I'm part of the rehab effort," she said. "I'm not involved in rescue work. That's being overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."
Some wildlife rescue experts didn't even get to do that much.
In April, when BP first began hiring people to deal with the spill, Murgatroyd called Fox, a Wimauma resident who oversaw the rescue of seabirds during the 1993 tanker spill in Tampa Bay and then wrote a manual for how to handle oiled-up birds.
Fox said she was told to get her gear ready to roll to the Florida Panhandle at a moment's notice. She packed up a van with everything she would need: medical equipment, towels and tubs, plus 75 cages and lots of Dawn dish washing liquid. She also trained volunteers from different Florida wildlife groups so they too would be ready to step in and help.
Four months have passed and "I've never heard another word," Fox said.
The same thing happened to Sharon Schmaltz of Wildlife Rehab and Education in Texas, who has spent 26 years working spills around the gulf.
"We never did get mobilized anywhere," she said. "We were told to stay put."
Instead the Fish and Wildlife Service sent its own employees into the field to capture oiled birds. One of those assigned to the job: Kayla DiBenedetto, a fisheries biologist who had been studying sturgeon.
Although she took some training classes on how to deal with oiled birds, it didn't really prepare her for the challenge.
"With the oiled birds that could walk and swim, I'd make a quick run at them to take them by surprise," DiBenedetto wrote in a first-person account posted on the Defenders of Wildlife website. "If they saw me coming, they'd run into the water and start swimming away. I found myself imagining it from the bird's perspective: If some large creature in a white suit was chasing me, of course I'd run, even if that large creature was saying, 'I'm here to help, I promise!' "
But wildlife rescue experts say chasing the birds with a net is the wrong way to catch an oiled bird. It adds to the stress the birds are already feeling.
The right way, the way that causes the bird far less stress, is to lure it in close enough to grab. An experienced rescue expert can lure a pelican close with just about anything. Fox once caught one by fluttering a $20 bill at it.
After seeing photos of how the Fish and Wildlife Service employees are chasing down the birds, Fox said, "I'm up to my nostrils drowning in frustration." Because of the way the rescue was mishandled, she said, "there are probably hundreds of thousands of birds dead already out there."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.