GILLETTE, WYO. — On the Great Plains, spring is usually a time of renewal in the avian world, when migratory birds press north to warm-weather haunts to breed.
But this April, Gary Mowad, a special agent with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), encountered a vastly different scene as he surveyed Wyoming from the sky: scores of dead ducks, geese, and other birds floating in toxic, black sheens that coated 213 artificial ponds and wetlands across the state.
Mr. Mowad, the government's "eye in the sky," identifies oil industry-related pools that are responsible for killing a large number of birds in the West. But instead of hitting the offenders with fines and jail, he works with firms to fix trouble spots. The results show how government-industry cooperation can solve problems that concern both.
"The program provides a great chance to advance some constructive partnerships with private industry," says US Rep. David Skaggs (D) of Colorado. "The intent is to ... make prosecution the option of last resort."
The FWS estimates that more than 2 million birds die annually from contact with contaminated oil evaporation ponds, or pits, a byproduct of fossil-fuel drilling. There are hundreds of thousands - some no bigger than a backyard swimming pool - speckling the American landscape from Illinois to California.
Once birds land they can't escape, and the problem is particularly insidious in the arid West, where migratory birds use wetlands as breeding areas or stopover points on their long journeys. "It's a major problem in all 30 of the oil-producing states," says Mowad, whose survey of Kansas last week revealed serious problems. Technically, all migratory birds are protected by the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The maximum penalties for each bird killed are a $10,000 fine and six months in jail.
But the FSW's effort to work with companies is reducing costs all round. Mowad contacts firms with problem pits, giving them 60 days to clean up by draining the ponds or filtering the oil off. Firms that don't comply face prosecution. In Montana and Colorado, where 1995 aerial surveys revealed a high noncompliance rate, the results have been good. After intervention last year, the vast majority of hazardous pits were cleaned up. "In my mind, this is a textbook example of how to be successful if you are a federal agency working with private industry," says Pat Flynn, the environmental officer for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and a spokesman for the Denver-based oil energy company HS Resources.
Wildlife officials worried about the pits for 30 years, but didn't realize until the early 1990s that more birds were being lost to oil pits than to poachers and accidental shooting. Budget cuts made addressing the problem hard, and "the oil and gas industry is very powerful," says Terry Grosz, with FSW's law enforcement unit. "We were told ... if we tried to use our regulatory muscle we'd have a political firestorm on our hands." Then in 1995, Mr. Grosz got congressional support from Representative Skaggs, who spearheaded a three-year, $750,000 appropriation to fund Mowad's novel aerial-surveillance program.
But not everyone is a fan. Don Basko, director of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission, says the federal government is exaggerating the extent of the problem.
Mowad has characterized conditions in Wyoming as "among the worst he had ever seen." The FWS and US Environmental Protection Agency pinpointed 200 illegal oil pits and broken lines as well as oil leaks into sensitive riparian areas used by breeding birds. At one location, 98 percent of the existing pits were out of compliance and the hundreds of dead birds could amount to fines in the millions of dollars.
But Mr. Basko says the 213 wells identified by the FWS represent less than 2 percent of the state's oil field portfolio, making it practically insignificant. "Yes, it's a concern, but it's not a monumental problem that can't be overcome in a month or two," he says.
Mowad says if the oil and gas industry keeps its word in Wyoming, nobody has to lose, but if birds continue to die he will meet the companies in court. "For the companies that are not responsible," he says, "the easiest way to make us go away is to take care of their mess."