By Kyle Dunlap
Public Affairs Intern
DENISON, Texas- A multi-agency effort on Lake Texoma is finding new ways for endangered birds to coexist with the manmade structures and interests around them.
The Interior Least Tern, a federally listed endangered species, prefers to nest in barren or sparsely vegetated areas along lakes and river systems. Within the Hagerman Wildlife Refuge on the Texas side of Lake Texoma, local populations of least terns have nested on oil pads that extend out into the lake. This has created difficulties for the oil companies that control these pads and can cause problems for the birds as well.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and an oil company have worked together to construct artificial nesting platforms for the birds. This will provide them with the habitat that they need without inhibiting the work of the oil company.
Paul Balkenbush, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental specialist for the Red River area, spoke on the importance and necessity of this effort.
“With an endangered species nesting on an active oil and gas pad, there’s a conflict of interest there,” Balkenbush said. “These platforms are designed to lure the terns off of the oil and gas pads, which are active, and hopefully then the terns will nest on the platform and do that successfully without conflicting with the oil and gas company.”
Unlike the land that it rests on, the minerals underneath Lake Texoma are privately held and extracted by various oil companies. Because of the proximity of the nests to the wells, these companies may be barred from entering some areas on the pads. This could render them unable to maintain the wells as long as the birds are present.
Mary Maddux, regional oil and gas specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, further explained the conflict of interest that brought about the platform solution.
“The oil and gas operator, as they are a mineral owner, have a legal right to develop and extract their minerals,” Maddux said. “So we’re trying to strike a balance between allowing the terns to utilize the habitat that is manmade, and still allowing the operator to extract.”
Using these outcropped islands as nesting grounds is not only bad for oil production, but also creates a hazardous situation for the already sparsely-populated terns.
“The reason it is potentially hazardous for least terns to nest on the oil pads is that it causes increased predation,” Maddux said. “The other reason is just from human presence. Fishermen and the public can inadvertently step on a nest prior to us knowing about it.”
Water releases from Corps of Engineers’ reservoirs can impact least tern habitats. The Corps works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lessen the impact to the tern population.
“Interior Least Terns are certainly one of the species of great concern to us because our projects oftentimes impact interior least tern habitats in river systems below our dams,” Balkenbush said. “The Corps of Engineers… Have an obligation with the endangered species act to try to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service at every juncture we can to help endangered species be successful.”
All of the specific hazards that least terns face were taken into consideration when building the platform, which has been crafted to the tern’s specific habitat requirements. The use of similar platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, and the success that they had shown, helped provide a blueprint for the Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge builders.
With a floating design, the platform is able to move with the rise and fall of water elevation, keeping nests from being washed away during times of fluctuation within the reservoir. It also contains small structures that the terns can go underneath for shade and a chicken wire barrier that prevents young chicks from falling into the water until they can fly. By serving as a refuge from the dangers of predators, humans and the water, the platform allows the perfect environment for the birds to flourish.
Balkenbush noted that the platform development has allowed the three partners to accomplish their various missions and create their own individual successes, while working together to do so.
“This is a shining example to me of how interagency cooperation, including private partners, can accomplish the missions of all the agencies and partners in a way that lets us all work in as much harmony as we can,” Balkenbush said.
If the platform proves successful, the hope is that they can be utilized at other Corps projects.
“We can easily adapt this type of technology and put them in other reservoirs through the Tulsa District,” Balkenbush said, “and almost anywhere we do that, we’re going to benefit under our obligation to the Fish and Wildlife Services and to endangered species.”