A refuge for oiled birds

Ralph Wehinger stands in the decontamination room at the new International Wildlife Recovery Center in Lake Creek. Wehinger has worked 10 years to develop the center, which he hopes will be put to use during oil spills. Click the photo to see a larger (32k) version. Mail Tribune / Jim CravenMail Tribune Jim Craven

A new facility in Lake Creek can be the main cleanup spot after spills all over North America


LAKE CREEK ' Oily birds from any major spill in North America can now be sent here to be decontaminated and nursed back to health at the new &

36;2 million International Wildlife Recovery Center.

Ten years in the making, the private, nonprofit center includes a receiving and inspection center at Medford's airport and a state-of-the-art decontamination and rehabilitation facility, complete with heliport, on Little Butte Creek 30 miles east of Medford.

The center is the only nonmobile facility of its kind in the western United States that can be used as the main responder for wildlife rescue in oil spills over a broad area ' North and Central America, as well as the Caribbean.

We know we will be tested, and we've drilled and done our best to be ready, said its creator and unpaid executive director, Eagle Point chiropractor Ralph Wehinger.

Wehinger ' also a prime mover behind creation of the U.S. Forensics Lab and the now-defunct Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History in Ashland ' said he is involved because wildlife has been a passion all his life.

He paid for the center with a &

36;1.2 million grant from the Department of Agriculture and other funding through the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed in response to the huge Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Rescue teams from the center recently did a great job in a practice drill with Chevron Oil Co. in the Willamette Slough, said wildlife permits coordinator Dale Nelson of the state Fish and Wildlife Department, who oversaw the training for rescuers.

When a real spill happens, Wehinger's rescue teams will work to save birds at spill sites and at the decontamination center. They will work under strict federal protocols.

On-site teams will search for, capture, perform triage, stabilize and transport birds to the Medford airport, where government agents will inspect the birds for disease, Wehinger said. The paid rescue team workers are typically former police or military people trained in search and rescue and first aid, Wehinger said.

Diseased birds will be euthanized and picked up for analysis by the Ashland forensics lab. Birds that can be saved will go to the center for decontamination in clean rooms, which have been built to protocols of the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior and myriad other state and federal agencies, Wehinger said.

Response team members must shower when they enter the rooms, put on puncture-resistant suits and shower again when they leave, so they do not take any bacteria or toxins out of the facility. Oil will be transported to the airport and disposed of with other waste petroleum products.

The decontamination team will force-feed a high-protein, high-sugar mixture down birds' throats to prepare them for the rigors of recovery. They will work with wildlife on sterile tables, massaging birds with household dish detergent and then spraying them clean.

Birds then go to a sterile cage room for gradual recovery. Survivors eventually will be flown back to their habitats, which will be rehabilitated at the same time.

A sterile kitchen can prepare snails, fish, bugs, kelp ' whatever the birds' natural diet. A laboratory and X-ray room will be used for diagnosis and treatment.

It's an incredibly complex process ' building it, working through all the agency regulations, finding funding, training, keeping it all ready to go, even when we know a big spill in the northern part of this hemisphere happens on the average of every five years, said Wehinger.

It's not cheap. The average spent on each bird in the New Carissa spill was &

36;20,000. The freighter grounded in a storm off Oregon's south coast in February 1999.

Wehinger has inked contracts with Marine Spill Response Corporation and Foss Environmental Services in Portland, said emergency management coordinator Mike Zollitsch of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Marine Spill Response is retained to do cleanups for 140 corporations that manufacture, transport or store oil or its byproducts, the largest such organization in the United States. Foss does the same work for 100 oil companies in the western United States, said Wehinger.

Wehinger also has set up small offices in British Columbia and Guanajuato, Mexico (sister city of Ashland), and is negotiating with British Columbia government officials next month ' and Mexico next year ' to firm up contracts to rescue birds there, he said. Wehinger is also in talks with Clean Sound Cooperative to handle bird rescue in Washington's Puget Sound.

Our goal by the end of the year is to complete three or four contracts that will tie up the western U.S. and western Canada, Wehinger said.

They've done a great job of setting up and are now on our list of resources if we get hit with a major spill, said Fish and Wildlife's Nelson. We're on the oil shipping route from Alaska to California, and accidents happen. With today's technology and unified command (of agencies), damage is likely to be less, but then, species populations are declining so the effects will be more detrimental.

Bird varieties the center typically might receive would include gulls, brown pelicans and whooping cranes, with preference given to those listed as endangered, threatened and sensitive, in that order.

California has three decontamination facilities in its university system, but they're funded by a state tax on gasoline and are used only for in-state spills, Wehinger said. Clean Rivers Cooperative in Portland contracts with oil companies to clean up spills and treat birds from a mobile semi-truck in the Willamette-Columbia-North Coast area, said Sarah Sabel of Clean Rivers.

Both Wehinger's center and Clean Rivers would be primary resources in spills, although government agencies would try to treat oiled birds on site first, Wehinger said. In a large spill, birds could not be treated and immediately released back to their environment, thus requiring use of Wehinger's center for long-term care.

The center operates under the for-profit Ore-Cal Trade Co., of which Wehinger is chief executive officer. It is on Bureau of Land Management land adjacent to Wehinger's home. Ore-Cal has worked with Jackson County on the expansion of the North American Trade Center on the other side of the runways from the terminal.

The center has recently started a fund-raising effort with a goal of &

36;10 million, said the center's new development director, Michelle Bacharka, who is in the process of writing a proposal for a grant to pay her salary. It's had help already from private donors and in-kind material contributions.

The center's long-range goal is to expand its net through South America and eventually into Southeast Asia, where ship transport of oil is common, Wehinger said. As the size of the net increases, so does the frequency of responses ' and the need for funding.

The penalties and awards are rising a lot, he said. The federal system is mandating that responsible parties and insurers use the best available technology (for cleanup and rehabilitation), and that's what we're providing. ... IWRC and similar facilities are becoming more and more important as the number of endangered species explodes exponentially.

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