06 May 2010: Report

Under Threat in the Gulf,
A Refuge Created by Roosevelt

Among the natural treasures at risk from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, created by Theodore Roosevelt to halt a grave threat to birds in his era — the lucrative trade in plumage. Now, oil from the BP spill is starting to wash up on beaches where Roosevelt once walked.

by douglas brinkley

At the heart of the region now threatened by the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a chain of islands containing tens of thousands of seabirds. Thin ribbons of sand rising no higher than 19 feet out of the gulf, these islands — part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge — currently hold at least 2,000 nesting pairs of brown pelicans, 5,000 pairs of royal terns, 5,000 pairs of Caspian terns, and 5,000 pairs of various seagulls and shorebirds. Earlier this week, strong winds and barrier-like booms kept the oil slick from washing ashore on Breton Island, the Chandeleur Islands, and other links in the refuge. But the National Audubon Society reported May 5 that oil had reached the beaches of the Chandeleurs, putting the abundant birdlife there in peril.

More than a century ago, these islands held an even richer assemblage of bird species. Breton Island alone was home to 33 species of wintering waterfowl, wading birds, secretive marsh birds, and various shorebirds. When the birds were in full plumage, Breton Island was quite a sight.

View gallery
Gulf Oil Spill

Getty Images
Oil-boom barriers now line the shores of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, home to tens of thousands of breeding seabirds.
Because nobody lived on the barrier islands at the turn of the last century — they were isolated miles from Venice, Louisiana, with treacherous gulf waters in between — most Americans had never heard of the sandy breeding ground where pelicans and herons in the thousands populated the beach. But plume hunters in Mississippi and Louisiana had. Regularly gangs made “hits” on the islands’ nesting wading birds and seabirds. The birds’ feathers were worth a fortune for milliners because the delicate plumage was needed to adorn ladies hats — the fashion rage of the Gilded Age and beyond.

To Roosevelt, the despoilers and plume-hunters of the Gulf South were pirates, and he wanted the feather mafias arrested. “Wreckers are no longer respectable and plume-hunters and eggers are sinking to the same level,” Roosevelt wrote about Breton Island. “The illegal business of killing breeding birds, of leaving nestlings to starve wholesale, and of general ruthless extermination, more and more tends to attract men of the same moral category as those who sell whiskey to Indians and combine the running of ‘blind pigs’ with highway robbery and murder for hire.”

To stop the carnage, Roosevelt issued an executive order on October 4, 1904 creating the Breton Island Federal Bird Reservation off the southeast coast of Louisiana. The reservation was the second unit — after Pelican Island, Florida — of what would eventually become the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System, whose stated mission was to “work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish wildlife, plants and
If Roosevelt hadn’t signed his executive orders, these islands might have been dead zones.
their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.” Today, the refuge system numbers 551 protected areas.

The history of Theodore Roosevelt and the creation of the U.S.’s first wildlife refuges in is one of the seminal stories in American conservation. For most of his adult life, Roosevelt was a staunch Auduboner. As U.S. President from 1901 to 1909, he kept a White House bird list. He regularly met with his ornithologist friends Frank M. Chapman (American Museum of Natural History) and Herbert K. Job (author of Wild Wings and Among the Water Fowl.)

Breton Island had been formed from remnants of the Mississippi River’s Saint Bernard delta. To some sailors the island was little more than a long sandbar of broken shells, Sargasso weed, and wind-twisted pine boles. But when the sun set in dramatic shades of day-glo red-orange-purple, the island could look more enticing than a Yucatan Peninsula beach resort.

To President Roosevelt’s way of thinking, he had created a bird reservation at the “mouth of the Mississippi” where his beloved brown pelicans (perhaps the bird species he enjoyed the most) could prosper. Breton Island was a prime place where herons and terns built nests, dived for fish, and hunted for fat shrimp.

Six years after leaving the White House, Roosevelt decided to spend a week living on America’s wildlife-rich barrier islands. On June 7, 1915, ex-president Roosevelt, accompanied by his wife, Edith, arrived in New Orleans by train and then traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian. Instead of having professional hunters like Holt Collier or Ben Lilly as his companions, Roosevelt joined up with solid preservationist types, such as Frank M. Miller, the founder of the Louisiana Conservation Commission. Their goal was to travel by boat and inspect Breton Island, Tern Islands, Shell Keys, East Timbalier Island, and, for that matter, a few unprotected keys.

Roosevelt always considered Louisiana the “home state” of John James Audubon, so it was fitting to have someone of Miller’s stature for the journey to the offshore islands. Herbert K. Job had ventured down from Connecticut with camera-in-hand, and Roosevelt hoped Job would document federal bird reservations in Louisiana as he had done in Wild Wings for the Florida Keys.

Leaving Edith behind in Pass Christian, the men sailed off on the Royal Tern, pulling a dinghy behind them. The vessel’s hold was crammed with camera equipment instead of guns. The gulf waters looked darker the farther the Royal Tem ventured from shore, and whitecaps slapped against the prow. Gigantic rays leaped from the water and a few devilfish swam along the surface.

“Globular jellyfish, as big as pumpkins, with translucent bodies, pulsed through the waters,” Roosevelt later wrote. The men spotted a loggerhead turtle. To Roosevelt, from a distance, his federal bird reservations looked like long lagoons on the far-off horizon. Meanwhile, sheets of white spray made the crew laugh and scores of black skimmers circled above.

As they sailed deeper into the gulf waters, pelicans plunged into the sea, feeding on schools of mullet in the checkered sunshine. Before long they heard the distant murmur of birds.


The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill:
An Accident Waiting to Happen

Oil Spill
The oil slick spreading across the Gulf has shattered the notion that offshore drilling had become safe. A close look at the accident shows that lax federal oversight, complacency by BP and the other companies involved, and the complexities of drilling a mile deep all combined to create the perfect environmental storm. READ MORE
“All of this section is now under Government protection,” Parker wrote in Forest and Stream, “and about the middle of June, either late in the evening or early in the morning, one may see the air filled with the white-winged gulls feeding their young on minnows, and even more wonderful, during the heat of the day see some of these small islands, looking at a distance like a wind sheet, since, when the birds are young, the old ones stand over them with outspread wings to protect them both from the sun and the rain.”

The Royal Tern anchored at Breton Island. If Roosevelt hadn’t signed his executive orders, these islands might have been dead zones. Now Breton Island, in particular, gathered in all the bounty of the gulf. Marine life was abundant. William Sprinkle, the reserve’s warden and the captain of the Royal Tern, told his passengers horror stories about the plumers and eggers ransacking the rookeries. Roosevelt took off his shoes in order to tread carefully, wanting to avoid bird nests in the islet’s marshlands, beaches, and brush. Proudly he marshaled facts about the birds. Castaway raccoons, the worst pests of all, had also been removed from the offshore islands by the warden to preserve eggs from robbery.

Busily, Roosevelt scribbled notes in his memorandum book about nighthawks and a small flock of Louisiana heron he had observed. Seizing the moment, Job set up a green shade, very faded, to block out the sun, and started taking magnificent photographs of migrating birds. He blended into the mangrove and gulf tamarisk scrub as if he were an indigenous creature. Miller began telling the life histories of red-winged blackbirds and long-billed marsh wrens, fulfilling his duty as an expert on local wildlife.

For Roosevelt and his companions, those days in the Gulf of Mexico were never-to-be-forgotten. None of the men even thought about stuffing a skimmer or tern — cameras were the order-of the-day.

Roosevelt’s essay about this gulf cruise, “The Bird Refuges of Louisiana” — published by Scribner’s Magazine in March 1916 — could have been a chapter in Job’s Wild Wings. “The laughing gulls and the black skimmers
More than 100 years of protection of bird and marine life is threatened by the toxic BP spill.
were often found with their nests intermingled, and they hovered over our heads with some noisy protest against our presence,” Roosevelt wrote. “Although they often — not always — nest so close together, the nests were in no way alike. The gulls’ dark green eggs, heavily blotched with brown, two or three in number, lay on a rude platform of marsh-grass, which was usually partially sheltered by some bush or tuft of reeds, or, if on wet ground, was on a low pile of driftwood.”

Establishing his credentials as an Auduboner, Roosevelt wrote on and on about the offshore breeding grounds. But he had also, foolishly, disturbed a sea turtle nesting area so as to carefully study the eggs. While Job busied himself with the nature photographs on the islands, a New Orleans photographer, J.H. Coquille, took a dozen unforgettable shots of Roosevelt inspecting royal tern eggs, walking barefoot on the beach, sitting like a Buddha contemplating the sea, and sneaking up on pelicans whose pouches were full of sardines. One photograph taken by Coquille showed a huge sign in the background that read: “KEEP OFF: AUDUBON SOCIETY.” Many of the photos accompanied Roosevelt’s article for Scribner’s Magazine.

As U.S. President, Roosevelt didn’t just save Breton Island. Determined to protect the Mississippi Gulf South as an intact ecosystem, Roosevelt also used executive orders to permanently protect Shell Keys, Tern Island, and East Timbalier Island. To Roosevelt these Gulf shore gems were American heirlooms, like Yellowstone or Yosemite.


Bill Stripling/Audubon
As the Gulf of Mexico oil spill approaches the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, at least 2,000 pairs of brown pelicans are nesting on islands in the refuge.
Now, more than 100 years of environmental protection of bird and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico is threatened by the toxic BP spill. Crude oil may soon be washing up on the beaches where Roosevelt walked barefoot back in 1915. Since the oil boom in the gulf over the last half-century, the islands — totaling 18,000 acres, only 7,000 of which are above the mean high tide line — have endured many insults, including an oil spill several years ago that killed hundreds of brown pelicans. From 2001 to 2010, due in part to President George W. Bush’s lessening of offshore drilling restrictions, there have been numerous oil-related explosions in the Gulf of Mexico. Nature itself has taken a heavy toll on the refuge, with Hurricane Katrina destroying a lighthouse on Breton Island in 2005 and causing major beach erosion and widespread destruction of vegetation.

Now, perhaps the biggest threat ever is drifting toward Breton Island and its neighbors, endangering one of Teddy Roosevelt’s finest conservation legacies.

POSTED ON 06 May 2010 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Sustainability Europe North America North America 


That faint rumbling sound you hear in the distance is Theodore Roosevelt doing somersaults in his grave.

But for something called an "acoustic regulator" this catastrophe might very well have been avoided. That device was deemed too expensive by BIG OIL and the Bush/Cheney administration allowed it to be discarded.

The price? A half a million dollars. Wasn't deregulation a really neat idea?

Some are calling this "Obama's Katrina". They're wrong. As a matter of fact it's not even close. This disaster is owned by George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney. Make no mistake about it.


Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Posted by Tom Degan on 06 May 2010

Does anyone have a link to the photograph of TR barefoot on Breton Beach?

If so, please send to fieldian at gmail.


Posted by Ian Field on 06 May 2010

This is heartbreaking. Wishing for a miracle for all living creatures. Man is so destructive So SAD, hurts my heart.

Posted by Haiku on 07 May 2010

What a wonderful perspective of how nature has been set-aside to protect such intrinsic areas of nature. Too bad we are not very good stewards of this precious land and nature. While the political forces are busy pointing fingers, where are the actual dollars going to save these kinds of areas? Why aren't companies like this one:
http://cleanupgulfspill.com being incorporated into the clean-up to start working with the ecological environment and start mitigating the contaminates? How sad that resources are not being used get some progressive work done to protect such precious areas.

Thank you for continuing to provide such informative pieces. I appreciate your group's journalistic pieces. Good Job!

Posted by Becky on 30 May 2010

It literally makes my heart ache to watch the news coverage concerning the devastation man's greed has caused to an area of one our country's most precious natural resources.

My family's history is directly deeply rooted to the very beginnings of what is now known as the Gulf Island National Seashore. Appointed by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900's, my great-great uncle, Captain William Morgan Sprinkle, selflessly patrolled nesting areas from Florida to the barrier islands off the coast of Texas.

I have no doubt he is weeping along with Mr. Roosevelt.

More information regarding Capt. Sprinkle and Mr. Roosevelt's detailed conservation endeavors can be found in chapter 10 of A BOOK LOVER'S HOLIDAY from which one of the quotes in this article was taken.

Posted by Rita on 02 Jun 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
douglas brinkleyABOUT THE AUTHOR
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and the author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. He has written numerous books, including The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, Los Angeles Times Book Review and American Heritage, as well as a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly.



Is Climate Change Putting
World's Microbiomes at Risk?

Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.

Canada’s Indigenous Bands Rise
Up Against a Tar Sands Pipeline

TransCanada, the company behind the now-defunct Keystone XL, is proposing another pipeline that would ship Alberta tar sands oil to Canada’s Atlantic coast. But fierce opposition from First Nation communities could derail this controversial project.

Why the Fossil Fuel Divestment
Movement May Ultimately Win

The fossil fuel divestment campaign has so far persuaded only a handful of universities and investment funds to change their policies. But if the movement can help shift public opinion about climate change, its organizers say, it will have achieved its primary goal.

Oil Drilling in Arctic Ocean:
A Push into Uncharted Waters

As the U.S. and Russia take the first steps to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, experts say the harsh climate, icy seas, and lack of infrastructure means a sizeable oil spill would be very difficult to clean up and could cause extensive environmental damage.

Oklahoma’s Clear Link Between
Earthquakes and Energy Boom

Oklahoma officials this week said oil and gas activity was the likely cause of the stunning increase in earthquakes in the state. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Oklahoma geologist Todd Halihan talks about what has caused this growing problem and what can be done about it.


MORE IN Reports

As Chinese Luxury Market Grows,
An Upsurge in Tiger Killings in India

by sharon guynup
Poachers killed more tigers in the forests of India in 2016 than any year in the last 15. The spike is linked to demand for tiger parts in China, where the endangered animal’s bones and skins are regarded as exotic luxury items.

New Look at Rivers Reveals
The Toll of Human Activity

by jim robbins
A recent outbreak of a deadly fish parasite on the Yellowstone River may have seemed unremarkable. But a new wave of research shows the episode was likely linked to the cumulative impact of human activities that essentially weakened the Yellowstone’s "immune system."

On Slopes of Kilimanjaro, Shift
In Climate Hits Coffee Harvest

by daniel grossman
Rising temperatures and changing precipitation are taking a toll on coffee farms worldwide, including the plantations around Mount Kilimanjaro. If the world hopes to sustain its two billion cup-a-day habit, scientists say, new climate-resilient species of coffee must be developed.

Aimed at Refugees, Fences Are
Threatening European Wildlife

by jim o'donnell
A flood of migrants from the Middle East and Africa has prompted governments in the Balkans to erect hundreds of miles of border fences. Scientists say the expanding network of barriers poses a serious threat to wildlife, especially wide-ranging animals such as bears and wolves.

How Tracking Product Sources
May Help Save World’s Forests

by fred pearce
Global businesses are increasingly pledging to obtain key commodities only from sources that do not contribute to deforestation. Now, nonprofit groups are deploying data tools that help hold these companies to their promises by tracing the origins of everything from soy to timber to beef.

How Warming Is Threatening
The Genetic Diversity of Species

by jim robbins
Research on stoneflies in Glacier National Park indicates that global warming is reducing the genetic diversity of some species, compromising their ability to evolve as conditions change. These findings have major implications for how biodiversity will be affected by climate change.

Full Speed Ahead: Shipping
Plans Grow as Arctic Ice Fades

by ed struzik
Russia, China, and other nations are stepping up preparations for the day when large numbers of cargo ships will be traversing a once-icebound Arctic Ocean. But with vessels already plying these waters, experts say the time is now to prepare for the inevitable environmental fallout.

How Forensics Are Boosting
Battle Against Wildlife Trade

by heather millar
From rapid genetic analysis to spectrography, high-tech tools are being used to track down and prosecute perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade. The new advances in forensics offer promise in stopping the trafficking in endangered species.

African Wetlands Project: A Win
For the Climate and the People?

by winifred bird
In Senegal and other developing countries, multinational companies are investing in programs to restore mangrove forests and other wetlands that sequester carbon. But critics say these initiatives should not focus on global climate goals at the expense of the local people’s livelihoods.

Ghost Forests: How Rising Seas
Are Killing Southern Woodlands

by roger real drouin
A steady increase in sea levels is pushing saltwater into U.S. wetlands, killing trees from Florida as far north as New Jersey. But with sea level projected to rise by as much as six feet this century, the destruction of coastal forests is expected to become a worsening problem worldwide.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.