Members of the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network were in Alaska, attending a conference about the effects of oil on wildlife, when the real thing came pouring out of a ruptured pipeline in Santa Barbara County on May 19, 2015.
As up to 100,000 gallons of thick, crude oil emptied along a 10-mile stretch of coast, OWCN Director Mike Ziccardi, who has experienced more than 50 spills in California and abroad, booked a red-eye flight from Anchorage to Santa Barbara.
Once there, he assumed his post at the incident command center to help coordinate the wildlife response effort — a role that includes organizing the recovery, field stabilization, transport, rehabilitation and release of affected wildlife.
California network ready to respond
Typically, the number of birds far outweighs the number of marine mammals brought into the wildlife care facilities. In this spill, the ratio is much less distinct.
“California is the best region in the world for oiled wildlife response,” Ziccardi said. “Through the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network, we have over 35 organizations we work with regularly. We train, do drills and exercises; we’ve built 12 facilities throughout the state for oiled wildlife. We have a system in place that is ready to hit the road should a spill like this occur anywhere in the state.”
That system burst into action in late May. Working with federal and state agencies, wildlife organizations and trained volunteers, recovery teams were deployed from the southern edge of San Luis Obispo County to Malibu, collecting, stabilizing and transporting wildlife.
They are cleaned and rehabilitated at those facilities, with the hope of returning them to the wild after recovery. The information collected about each bird and mammal helps inform research on wildlife care for future spills, and helps scientists better understand the impact of this spill.
More marine mammals than expected
While the full extent of damage to wildlife remains unknown, this spill appears to be unique, according to marine biologist Kyra Mills-Parker, deputy director of field operations for the UC Davis OWCN. She said that typically, the number of birds far outweighs the number of marine mammals brought into the wildlife care facilities. In this spill, the ratio is much less distinct.
By June, the number of dead animals found during wildlife recovery efforts spiked. As of the evening of June 1, oiled wildlife responders had captured 220 animals, including both the dead and alive.
That number includes 57 oiled birds, mostly brown pelicans, that were rescued and 80 birds collected dead. Thirty-eight marine mammals have been rescued — 32 California sea lions and six northern elephant seals — and 45 mammals were found dead, including nine dolphins and 36 California sea lions. Of the live captured animals, seven sea lions and eight birds died in care. Of those collected, 80 animals are still alive, and 140 are dead.
Keep calm, care for wildlife
The OWCN is managed by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center on behalf of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
The network of more than 35 partner organizations is funded from a portion of a fee levied on the oil industry. OWCN partners include more than 2,000 trained people the network can tap to mobilize at a moment’s notice for emergencies like the oil spill in Santa Barbara County.
“Seeing animals injured or affected by oil spills is troubling,” Ziccardi said. “But you have to keep calm. By going out there, developing systems and the means to collect animals quickly, bring them into our centers and provide them the best care possible, it’s doing wonderful things for the animals. Especially animals that are affected due to our need for oil.”