August 31, 2017 / 7:10 PM / 7 months ago

Long wait to learn fate of Gulf Coast wildlife refuges hit by Harvey

(Reuters) - As devastating as Hurricane Harvey was to people in Texas and Louisiana, they were buffered by wildlife-rich barrier islands and marshlands, where the extent of wind and flood damage will not be known for weeks.

More than a dozen national wildlife refuges, home to water fowl, reptiles and migratory birds, line the Gulf coast where Harvey made landfall last Friday, first as a hurricane with winds topping 130 mph and later as a drenching tropical storm. Tens of thousands of people were driven from their homes.

“These natural areas on the coast provide such a great service to the ecosystem,” said Keenan Adams, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s southwest region, which includes Texas. “They’re barrier islands, so they provide an initial buffer against the storm surge.”

Although the refuges have recovered before from storms, including Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, the full impact of Harvey to their environments and animals will be “hard to know for sure until the water levels go down and get back to normal,” said Jeffrey Fleming, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s southeast region, which includes Louisiana.

But if recent storms are any guide, the refuges will likely hold up well.

“I don’t recall any extraordinary lasting impacts,” said Fleming. “Natural resources are pretty resilient.”

One species at risk from the storm surge is the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, whose nesting grounds include the beaches of Matagorda Island, part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Texas’s Gulf coast, Adams said.

Other species are better able to cope with the storm, officials said. Water birds generally fly to safer areas, Louisiana alligators seek higher ground and migratory birds have yet to arrive, they said.

The endangered whooping cranes, many of which make Aransas their winter homes, are still several weeks away from leaving their summer nesting areas in the northern United States and Canada, Adams said.

At McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, there was already a concern about salt water encroachment into marshes, which kills some vegetation and makes it more difficult for mottled ducks to reproduce.

Officials stressed that the first priority for employees of the refuges was helping to clean up their storm-hit communities. After that, they said they will assess damage to the roads and structures in the refuges, which are now closed to the public.

Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool

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