In April 2000, a pipeline rupture spilled more than 140,000 gallons of oil into Maryland’s Patuxent River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Natural resource trustee agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Maryland, worked closely with Pepco and ST Services—the two parties responsible for the rupture—to conduct natural resource damage assessments of the spill, which injured or destroyed wetlands, beaches and wildlife, including resident birds and hundreds of ruddy ducks.
Waterfowl mortality studies estimated that 553 ruddy ducks were lost in the spill. This included ducks killed by the spill as well as the number of young lost.
To replace the ruddy ducks lost in the Patuxent oil spill, the trustee agencies calculated that 1,853 acres of nesting habitat needed to be restored. Because ruddy ducks are an open water species that feeds on the hard substrate of the river, options such as the restoration of marshes or Bay grasses would not compensate for the loss of this species.
After a public review and comment period, the trustee agencies decided that the restoration of ruddy duck nesting habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region would have the most beneficial effect on ruddy ducks.
The wetlands of the Prairie Pothole Region of the Midwest include portions of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and southern Canada. This region is characterized by small landscape depressions left behind when the glaciers receded. These depressions, or potholes, collect rain and snow, forming small shallow wetlands and lakes.
Ruddy ducks’ late August to mid-October migration along the Atlantic Coast extends from North Dakota across Minnesota and southeast Michigan to the Chesapeake Bay, where they overwinter. Ruddy ducks migrate back to their nesting grounds in the Prairie Pothole Region from February through mid-April.
The Prairie Pothole Region is not only vital for ruddy ducks, but most of the continent’s waterfowl as well, earning it the nickname, “duck factory of North America.” The region produces 50 percent of the total number of ducks for eight of the 12 most common species that breed there. Other Chesapeake wintering waterfowl depend upon the potholes for breeding, including American widgeon, gadwall, mallard, shoveler, canvasback, redhead, lesser scaup and bufflehead.
Prairie potholes, which provide the most productive wetland habitat for waterfowl in North America, have been seriously reduced in past decades.
Restoring the farmland in Prairie Pothole Region to perennial grass cover will increase nesting habitat, which in turn will produce more ruddy ducks to overwinter on the Patuxent River and the Bay.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has established programs that acquire perpetual easements from farmers that protect and restore nesting habitat for ruddy ducks and other species. So far, 474 acres are being restored and protected by easements. Farmers enrolled in one program can still grow hay or graze animals in these areas.
Other resident birds like heron and osprey were also affected by the spill. These birds rely heavily on the Patuxent River for food. They live in the area year-round and would not benefit from increased nesting habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region.
Improving water quality through additional oyster reef acreage was selected as the best method for compensating for the loss of these birds