Recently approved state budget ensures agency remains afloat, expands services to inland areas
OAKLAND, Calif. (July 24, 2014) – One moment it’s basking in the sun while drifting on the Pacific Ocean or Monterey Bay; the next, it is covered with black, tar-thick goo. An otter, pelican or seal lacks any concept of oil and knows nothing about the hazardous deadly toxin invading its habitat. Attempts to flee become futile. The thick substance coats fur and feathers, which lose their water-repellent and thermostatic qualities. Instinctive actions, e.g., licking, increase the likelihood of infection and death. Animals coming into contact with oil face immediate and long-term health threats, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, “Understanding Oil Spills and Oil Spill Response”.
For the thousands of California wildlife killed annually due to toxic environmental disasters on oceans and bays, thousands more are rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the wild by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The only wildlife response agency in the world with more than 30 different member organizations comprising world-class aquaria, universities, scientific organizations and rehabilitation groups, according to its Web site, the OWCN has responded to more than 80 spills in California and treated more than 10,000 animals since its 1994 formation, OWCN Director Michael Ziccardi said.
Administered by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine under the auspices of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response, OWCN formed in response to the Exxon Valdez and American Trader oil spills in Alaska and Huntington Beach, respectively. It is funded primarily by OSPR from interest on a state oil spill trust fund; however, in recent years, below-1 percent interest rates have caused that source to decline and become insufficient for meeting program needs. This forced OWCN managers to begin shutting down operations currently reserved only for the care of wildlife affected by oil in the marine (coastal) environment. Jurisdictional boundaries cause the various birds, lizards, small mammals and other animals existing inland to receive limited to no care from spills in those areas.
Fortunately, all that just changed.
Besides the stable revenue source secured as a result of the legislatively approved state budget signed by Governor Brown on Friday, OWCN’s allocation from OSPR will increase from $2 million to $2.5 million, allowing it to expand its outreach to all California wildlife – those living inland and along coastal shores. OWCN already has captured, rehabilitated and released hundreds of otters, sea lions, seals, pelicans, seagulls and a legion of other marine mammals and fowl affected by marine water contamination. Now it is preparing to mirror those services for the many rodents, small carnivores, raptors and others making their homes in inland waters, valleys, mountains and hills.
The reliable source for operations costs means OWCN “can continue to operate the world’s best oiled wildlife readiness and response program for California,” Ziccardi wrote in his e-mail response. And because the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires big oil to include the care of affected wildlife in oil spill contingency plans, OWCN’s existence benefits it, too. “[T]he petroleum industry can continue to list our operations (which include the integrated efforts of 32 different groups) in their contingency plans at no additional cost to them. It results in a win-win situation for all involved.”
All in this case includes animals, too, those on both land and water, because the budget also contains money that will expand OSPR’s reach to “all state surface waters at risk of oil spills from any source, including pipelines and the increasing shipments of oil transported by railroads.” The use of railways and highways to ship crude, oil and other petroleum products has exploded as a result of increased fracking in California and other states. The role of OWCN in providing trained, reliable staff and volunteers in those areas will be crucial, OSPR spokeswoman Alexia Retallack.
“OWCN is critical to our response in California,” Retallack said during a phone interview. “It’s difficult to maintain trained individuals to do what needs to be done for wildlife once response begins: they must be best-prepared to capture, wash, document them – all those things.”
Aside from being able to emulate its “readiness and response operations developed in marine waters” in the inland regions, OWCN “will be developing protocols and procedures to care for species not previously focused on (e.g., rodents, small carnivores, raptors), bring additional Member Organizations into the OWCN fold, expand training opportunities for these regions, develop facilities and equipment caches to allow for immediate deployment, and similar activities,” Ziccardi noted in his e-mail response. “In short, it will allow us to provide the best available care to oiled animals no matter where they are affected.”