Interview with Greg Butcher

Photo of Greg Butcher

Greg Butcher is Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation. He has been working on setting up a plan to help monitor the effects of the oil spill on birds, help provide support to volunteers along the coast, and help restore gulf coast habitats for birds and other wildlife.

What is most troubling to you about the oil spill?

The most troubling thing to me is that we can’t stop the oil from leaking—and oil is bad news for all living things. It causes needless suffering and death for all creatures that depend on the water. But what also troubles me is that we shouldn’t be drilling in these deep waters until we can contain leaks like this.

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What can people to do help?

If you live near the coast and want to volunteer, there will be many opportunities in the weeks and months ahead. However, it’s really important for anyone volunteering to get training. Oil is toxic—and it can be dangerous to touch it or breathe it, so it’s critical to work through the groups who are sponsoring volunteer work, like the Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon.

There are also special areas that will need protection. For example, Audubon has identified important habitats vital to specific species. These “Important Bird Areas” are critical places throughout birds’ life cycles and need protection. We need help monitoring all of these sites. Some will need help with clean up and restoration. Others will not be affected by oil, and these healthy habitats will be all the more important for the production of young birds until future generations of birds can return to the areas that are now being oiled.

You can help to clean up trash and take other steps to protect areas that are not oiled so that birds have clean beaches, marshes, and other wetlands. Again, always work with wildlife experts to avoid damaging sensitive areas.

Additionally, think about protecting habitat in your local parks and backyards (it really matters!). Birds of all kinds need healthy habitats. You can always make a difference in providing them. It’s also important to help others understand the link between our energy use and this oil spill.

And finally, you can also help raise money to help deal with the spill. Many groups are looking for help to pay for volunteers’ expenses, equipment, and other activities. It’s also important to help to educate others about why habitat is so important and why it’s so important to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

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Does washing birds help them survive?

Yes—studies show that properly cleaning oiled birds can help them survive. It requires trained experts. But it’s a good thing to do, and it can help about 10-15% survive.

The problem with washing birds is that they belong in their habitat, and if their habitat is covered in oil, they don’t have a place to go back to. So cleaning birds is good, but we also need to clean up the habitat or we will be putting them right back in harm’s way.

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How does energy use connect to the oil spill?

Our country uses way too much oil and gas. And this oil spill shows the cost of this energy use. We all understand the benefits, but need to understand the costs and how to pay for those costs. The more we reduce our overall energy use, the better it is for the environment and for reducing the impact of climate change. Every single person in this country can reduce his or her energy use!

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What’s the biggest threat to birds in the short-term and long-term?

The biggest threat to birds is that they many were already in a situation where their habitat was disappearing. And this could wipe out some species or make it hard for others to recover or thrive. For example, the brown pelican was just taken off the Endangered Species List. They don’t have a lot of healthy habitat left. If they get oiled and their habitat gets covered in oil, they could suffer. And it might take a long time to rebound. That’s why Audubon has been working hard to protect pelicans and their habitat. Now, we’ll have to work even harder to safeguard the healthy places that aren’t getting oiled so that the pelicans there can breed and thrive.

Another big concern is that after July 4th migrating birds will be coming back through this area and will hit oiled beaches and oiled marshes. Unfortunately, many could die in late summer and fall.

In the short-term, we need to make sure we clean up habitat as quickly as possible. But in the long-term, we need to protect those areas that haven’t been hit with oil so that birds and other wildlife have places to nest and feed.

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How will the oil affect the ecosystem?

We don’t know the long-term impact. But this oil spill is 90% or more underwater. And that means it is harming all living things that live in the water, including fish, shrimp, and micro-organisms. And it impacts all the animals that feed on ocean creatures—from birds to people. So birds will have less food in the Gulf, people will have less food from the Gulf, and the ecosystem itself will be contaminated for many, many years.

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What happens to the chemicals that were dumped into the water to break up the oil?

No one knows exactly how the chemicals, called dispersants, that were added to the water to break up the oil spill will affect the ecosystem. These chemicals were used to break down the oil in the slick by separating it into very small droplets. In theory, this allows the oil to be eaten by tiny microorganisms in the water. But some people fear that pumping more than 1 million gallons of these chemicals into the ocean could make matters worse. They fear that the chemicals will make the water more poisonous to smaller organisms, such as phytoplankton, tiny crustaceans, and little fish. And that, in turn, can negatively affect the entire food chain.

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How does science help us understand a tragedy like this?

It’s really important to understand how ecosystems work and how oil affects the working of ecosystems. If we don’t understand this, it will be harder to clean up and understand how this will affect wildlife for the long haul. Science is critical to understanding what we do now—and what we need to do in the future. It is also important just to count: We need to know how many individuals were there before the oil spill, how many died, and how many are left after the spill. That will allow us to understand the true costs of the spill to wildlife and to the people who depend on shrimp, fish, and other products of the ocean.

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What can kids do?

Kids can do so many things. I know they are worried about this oil spill. But they need to know that many, many smart and dedicated people are working hard to stop the leak and clean-up habitat and protect wildlife. And they also need to know that kids can all do something to help—no matter where they live. They can work with their parents and neighbors to reduce energy and help protect habitat. They can also learn to identify birds and understand that birds are good indicators for the health of the environment. Kids can also keep studying science and understand what it takes to help make the planet healthier.

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Is there anything we can be hopeful about in the future?

I have a great belief in the American people. I think we can reduce our energy use and develop more sensible energy policies. I also have great hope for new generations to help find safer ways to get the energy we need, to commit to restoring habitat, and to protect the amazing Mississippi River and other habitats that are currently threatened.

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