Healing Grand Bay Habitats After the Deepwater Spill
Healthy habitats, like this pine savanna, nurture fish and bird communities in Grand Bay and improve recreation and quality of life for local residents. Photo courtesy of Sandra Huynh.
Nearly a decade after the largest maritime oil spill in U.S. history, Mississippi’s Grand Bay Reserve and its partners have embarked on a large-scale restoration of the region’s wet pine savanna and other critical coastal habitats. Their goal? Restore the places that host migratory birds, support commercial fisheries, protect water quality, and provide opportunities to hunt, fish, and paddle across thousands of acres along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.
“The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill had a huge impact on our community, in terms of lost wages from closures of fisheries, injured birds and other wildlife, and people want to see the restoration funds being put to work,” says Dr. Ayesha Gray, director of the Grand Bay Reserve. “That’s one of the reasons we positioned our initial restoration effort adjacent to Highway 90; people will definitely take notice when we restore hundreds of acres along their commute.”
Prescribed burns are part of the effort to restore wet pine savanna and other critical habit in Mississippi’s Grand Bay. Photo courtesy of Cher Griffin.
Officially known as the Grand Bay Land Acquisition and Habitat Management Project, the work is being funded by the Mississippi Trustee Implementation Group (MS TIG) through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Program, which is in charge of addressing natural resource injuries in Mississippi caused by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The group allocated $6 million to acquire up to 8,000 acres and to manage up to 17,500 acres of coastal and freshwater marsh, beach, savanna flatwoods, and forested freshwater scrub-shrub. Restoration efforts will include a combination of mechanical, chemical, and prescribed fire treatments.
A project of this scale could only be accomplished through partnership. Mississippi’s NRDA Trustee, the MS Department of Environmental Quality, and the MS Technical Implementation Group (TIG) have partnered with the U.S. Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the MS Department of Marine Resources, and the Grand Bay Reserve (NERR) to accomplish the work.
The Reserve’s role is to advise on land acquisition, perform and lead habitat management on state owned parcels, assist the Refuge on habitat management of federally-owned parcels, and conduct project monitoring. They will also educate the community about the project.
“Our Reserve is perfectly positioned to provide outreach to the community on the restoration activities,” says Dr. Gray. “Since it is in such a visible location, we can show people the value of these wide-open spaces and teach them about how they’ve been impacted and what we can do to help—their curiosity gets satisfied, and that’s good for the environment and the community.”
Henslow’s sparrow captured during the Reserve’s outreach event. Photo courtesy of Sandra Huynh.
The Grand Bay Reserve hosts more than 260 migratory bird species annually, making its health and biodiversity a critical priority for regional wildlife conservation. The conserved and restored lands also support recreational and commercial fisheries through the permanent protection of nursery areas for blue crab, shrimp, trout, and drum. The project will provide expanded access for hunting, wildlife watching, and other important coastal recreation-related tourism activities.
Mississippi acquired the first set of parcels in December 2018, placing an additional 1,500 acres of coastal wildlife habitat in conservation. Many of the new acquisitions are adjacent to areas that are already under active management, which makes restoration easier to do and more effective overall.
“Large parcels provide contiguous habitat for wildlife and make it possible to manage the area with fewer fire lanes,” says Dr. Gray.