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Gulf of Mexico, Sustaining A Treasured Region

story by Beverly Moseley

When a reported 168,000 gallons of oil spilled this spring into Texas’ Houston Ship Channel due to a collision between a barge and tanker, it was a reminder of the vulnerability of the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal wildlife and habitats.
 
The spill serves to highlight the continual need for vigilance and proactive approaches in caring for the treasured Gulf Coast region. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is one federal agency working everyday with coastal landowners, farmers and ranchers on conservation efforts aimed at protecting, restoring and enhancing vital coastal resources and bird populations. 
 
“The reality that disasters will occur from time to time is a good example of why conservation programs are important to protecting our resource base,” says David Manthei, NRCS district conservationist in Anahuac, Texas. “Whether it be drought, impending flood waters, storm damage, an oil spill or even just day-to-day farming operations, NRCS has programs in place that can assist landowners in protecting and preserving the natural resources.”
 
NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one such Farm Bill program that offers financial assistance opportunities for landowners that are aimed at wildlife and their habitats. 
This spring, workers clean oil debris in Bolivar as a result of the Houston ship channel oil spill.

Coastal stewards

For generations, Taylor Wilcox’s family has farmed rice and raised cattle in the Texas coastal counties of Chambers and Jefferson. In fact, some of Wilcox’s Chambers County rice fields are only 12 miles from the state’s upper Gulf Coast shoreline, in turn making his lands a part of the migratory waterfowl and shorebird flyway zone. 
 
Taylor WilcoxWilcox showed his stewardship commitment to migratory bird populations and the Gulf Coast region when he enrolled about 1,600 acres into NRCS’s Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI). This initiative was a proactive response to the historic BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and its possible impact on coastal wildlife and  habitats. NRCS offered coastal rice farmers financial assistance toward the costs of flooding fallow rice fields in an effort to provide migratory bird populations additional areas for resting, roosting and feeding before their arrival to the Gulf.  
 
 
“Rice stubble is the perfect environment. The levies are there and from a bird’s eye view, they can see the water,” says Wilcox, adding, “Since we did that we did see an increase in our bird populations. Was it because of that? I’m not sure. We do have to attribute some of that success to the initiative.”
 
Wilcox says he would welcome additional financial incentives to help offset the costs of flooding fallow rice fields not previously enrolled under MBHI. 
 
“From a rice producer standpoint, we still need that [financial assistance]. The market isn’t strong enough in the rice to offset the input costs in these situations. Extra incentive money would really help stimulate what we have going,” says Wilcox.
 
The Houston ship channel oil spill this spring highlights the vulnerability of the Gulf Coast area.Manthei says the 2014 Farm Bill through EQIP and the Migratory Shorebird Habitat Initiative (MSBHI) which continues to offer available funding for wildlife management and habitat conservation practices such as wildlife habitat management systems, annual vegetation establishment for wetland habitat, brush management, herbaceous weed control and deferred grazing.  
 
Birds feed on a flooded rice field in the Texas Gulf Coast county of Chambers.“Fallow fields can provide excellent wildlife habitat. The only limit is in regards to the farmer’s need to utilize that area for farming purposes,” says Manthei. “A host of practices can be employed in these areas to provide habitat for either wetland or upland wildlife species.”
Indeed, Manthei points out  that it’s these type of sustainable conservation practices on an area’s natural resources that can prove critically beneficial during a time of crisis such as an oil spill.
 

Circling back

Four days after the oil spill, the clean up and containment process continued at the Houston Ship Channel, Galveston Bay and the Gulf waters. Despite the spill, Mother Nature stayed the course evidenced by the beginning wave of migratory Shorebirds into coastal habitats. 
 
And just like before the spill on March 22, NRCS employees continue their mission of working with private landowners along the Gulf Coast region on sustainable conservation practices which optimize the natural resources for all wildlife and their coastal habitats.
“Private landowners are important stewards to the Gulf Coast. They ultimately will decide what does or does not happen on their land and this includes the implementation of conservation-friendly activities,” Manthei says.