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Project will double the size of island in US wildlife refuge

December 26, 2020 GMT
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This photo, taken in July 2013 by Karen Westphal and provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, shows Breton Island, off Louisiana at the southern end of the 60-mile-long chain of barrier islands making up the nation’s second national wildlife refuge. Work has begun to more than double the area available for nesting seabirds on North Breton Island. (Karen Westphal/U.S. Geological Survey via AP)
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This photo, taken in July 2013 by Karen Westphal and provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, shows Breton Island, off Louisiana at the southern end of the 60-mile-long chain of barrier islands making up the nation’s second national wildlife refuge. Work has begun to more than double the area available for nesting seabirds on North Breton Island. (Karen Westphal/U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Work has begun off Louisiana on a project to more than double the size of an island in the nation’s second-oldest wildlife refuge.

The project will add 400 acres (162 hectares) of new habitat for birds and animals on North Breton Island, which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Taylor Pool said currently covers about 290 acres (117 hectares).

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North Breton Island is at the southern end of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, created in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt on a 60-mile-long (96-kilometer-long) sweep of barrier islands. It’s the only refuge he ever visited, according to its website.

Without restoration, the island would dwindle to a sand bar by the early 2030s, the U.S. Geologic Survey has said.

North Breton now houses one of Louisiana’s largest colonies of water birds, including one of the largest pelican nesting areas, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a news release about the work. The barrier islands also protect New Orleans and other parts of southeast Louisiana from hurricane storm surges.

Callan Marine LTD has a $54.9 million contract to pump up to 5.9 million cubic yards (4.5 million meters) of sand - enough to fill the Empire State Building more than four times - from the Gulf of Mexico floor onto the beaches, dunes and marshes of North Breton Island.

It’s starting at the north end, where pelicans nest on shrubby mangroves. Working from north to south, the company is expected to finish in the spring, before the next nesting season, the news release said.

If bad weather makes the company miss that deadline, work would stop during nesting season and resume afterwards, The Times-Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate reported.

A century of erosion, hurricanes, the BP oil spill in 2010 and a smaller spill in 2005 have eaten away at the islands. Hurricanes included Katrina and Rita, which ate away 80% of the chain’s land area in 2005, according to the refuge’s website.

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The entire refuge currently has about 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) that are generally above high tide, protecting nests on the ground.

In 1975, the islands — except for North Breton, which once housed an oil facility — were made part of the National Wilderness System.

“Breton is a special and unique place that is tremendously important to water birds and nesting birds,” said Leo Miranda-Castro, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s South-Atlantic Gulf and Mississippi Basin Regional Office. “If the island disappears, it will dramatically impact coastal bird habitat.”

Two smaller water bird rookeries -- Queen Bess and Racoon islands -- already have been restored. Queen Bess, reopened as a wildlife refuge early this year after being enlarged from about 5 acres (2 hectares) to 37 acres (15 hectares), held more than 10,000 nests this year, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said in November. That month, volunteers planted 2,000 matrimony vines and more than 4,200 mangrove seedlings to provide more nesting habitat on Queen Bess.

Work also has begun to restore Rabbit Island, a west Louisiana island where hundreds of birds were released in 2010 after being cleaned of oil from the BP spill.

The North Breton Island project was among the first approved in 2014 as part of early restoration projects using money provided by BP PLC after the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We won’t continue to be the Louisiana we know and love if we don’t incorporate the needs of all our residents, including birds and wildlife, because they contribute to making our ecosystem so unique,” said Bren Haase, executive director of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “North Breton Island is the next step in preserving habitat for our state bird and other species.”