SURVEYOR'S NOTEBOOK

Environmental Game Theory, A Story About Endangered Birds

By Rik van Hemmen

The wreck had spilled some heavy fuel oil and wildlife had been affected.

The wreck was on the beach, waves were about 12 feet high and it was unlikely we would get a tow wire out to the tug offshore that day.

I had asked a DEP employee to lay out an area of about 200 by 200 feet where we would clear the beach grass and level the area with a bulldozer to use as a staging area for the tow wire. When I arrived that morning, I discovered that the cleared area was 200 by 200 yards, and now I worried that we would be charged for the restoration of an area almost 10 times as large as planned.

I decided to drive back to the hotel where I could update reports and refine some calculations.

On the way back I passed the wildlife rehabilitation center that had been installed at an abandoned salmon hatchery. There was no hurry with the report and decided that maybe there was something to learn about wildlife rehabilitation. Next to the salmon hatchery there was a very impressive semi sized trailer that indicated it was the State Mobile Wildlife Rehabilitation Facility. I got out of my truck, and at that moment somebody came out a door at the salmon hatchery. The women looked at me sternly and asked: “What are you doing here?” I explained that I was one of the salvage people and was curious about the birds. Without hesitation she told me I had to leave because I was disturbing the birds.

I got back in my truck and started to back out of my parking spot. I just started rolling and another woman came out of the trailer. She was standing right next to my open window and she asked if she could help me.  I explained that I was a salvor and curious about how the birds were being taken care of, but that I was just told to leave by another person.

She smiled and said: “Volunteers, they are all the same.”

So I asked: “And you are?”

She smiled: “I am the State ornithologist and in charge of this operation, and I think it is great you show interest in our work.”

“I heard there are birds that are covered with oil. How bad is it?”

“That depends on how you look at it. We have found about 100 birds covered with oil, about half were dead and we tried to nurse the others back to health. Of those we have released about 10, about 10 died, and we are hoping for the best for the others.”

“How do you clean the birds and nurse them back?”

“Let me show you,” and I got a tour of the operation. We talked about how the birds were found and the ornithologist explained that while there is an official death count, it is far from clear that the oil caused every bird’s death. Many of the birds were migrating and migration drop outs are very common. In normal conditions those birds would stop flying and would eventually die. But with the oil spill they would become oil covered, be found by volunteers before they died and it would be immediately assumed that their condition was caused by the oil instead of migratory stress. As such, the official count may very well overestimate the number of birds killed by oil. As a matter of fact, some of the birds that would have died during the migration may now get nursed back to health.

But I had heard about these snowy plovers. “Is it really true, the oil spill is exactly in the only remaining nesting area for this exceedingly rare birds?”

“Yes”, she said, ”It is true. There were only about 10 nesting pairs. We had to catch them, and they are now kept right here in a large cage. Would you like to see them?”

“Well yes. One of the rarest birds in the US? Yes, I would!”

She took to me to a large cage and said: “Now I want you to be quiet, the birds will be sitting on the sand and shell, and they have almost perfect camouflage. So we will quietly get close to the cage and I will point, and then you will just have to look and when you look closely you will see it.”

So we snuck up and she pointed, and after a while I did see this little bird, almost perfectly camouflaged in the sand and shell. I nodded and we walked back. “So why has this bird become so endangered?”

“It is the invasive beach grass that we planted to keep the dunes in place. These birds used to nest on shell and sand and were perfectly camouflaged and were protected against rodents and other egg hunters, because raptors would hunt the rodents. But the beach grass provided cover for rodents against predators, and with increasing rodent populations, the plover nests, which now were surrounded by beach grass, were being raided by the rodents and this resulted in a plover population collapse.”

“So this beach grass is bad for the plovers?”

“Yes”, she said, “actually we are spending a fortune to control it.”

When we got back to my truck, the volunteer came out of the door again and with a beaming smile announced that three birds were ready for release. A few minutes later we released three seagulls and everybody cheered and clapped.

When I got back to the hotel, I found the DEP employee at the bar with the rest of the salvage crowd. I got a beer and ordered one for him too. He thanked me and we took a sip.

I said: “The beach area you cleared is bigger than I thought it would be. Is that going to cost more to restore?”

He waited a second to answer: “Well, we will have to see.”

“I suppose you are going to have to decide whether you can get away with charging us for not replacing that damn beach grass …….. and then take it out again to protect the plovers?”

He took another sip of his beer and smiled a little and said, “Well, can you blame me for trying?”

Then he looked at me and said: “Ok, so you got me, but now I am wondering. If we pay for the fuel, can we use your bulldozer when you are not using it to clear more of that beach grass?”

“Hell, I can’t think of an idea that would delight me more, and there is no doubt my client would be delighted to pay for the fuel too.”

Cooperation is a beautiful thing. All you need to do is find common ground, and generally you find that by random exploration on the other side of the game.

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Picture credits: Wikipedia