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Bird Rescue Group Remembers Exxon Valdez, Prepares for Future

By Chris Klint, Senior Digital Producer, cklint@ktuu.com
Published On: Mar 24 2014 05:36:00 PM AKDT

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck Blight Reef in pristine Prince William Sound, Alaska, home to over 200 bird species.

Twenty-five years later, three members of International Bird Rescue's emergency response team look back on their experiences of the oil spill that changed everything. (Courtesy International Bird Rescue)

ANCHORAGE -

A quarter century after helping rehabilitate birds oiled by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, a bird rescue group is planning a new Alaska facility for wildlife care in future environmental disasters.

According to officials with California-based International Bird Rescue, the group is planning a new dedicated bird treatment facility in Anchorage. While the city is already home to the Alaska Wildlife Response Center, proposed by IBR in 1991, much of the facility is now home to the locally operated Bird Treatment and Learning Center.

In an IBR statement, members of the group say the 1989 spill exacted a devastating toll on the region’s wildlife, but also taught responders valuable lessons in saving as many animals as possible.

“International Bird Rescue’s response team was critical in efforts to save as many oiled birds as possible during the catastrophe,” officials wrote. “Exxon Valdez was the first major spill where field stabilization and transport were utilized extensively: Four regional centers were established to handle oiled wildlife -- the same number of centers we set up by International Bird Rescue and partner organizations during the Gulf Oil Spill in 2010.”

After assisting with the Gulf of Mexico spill following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, the group was again on call after New Year’s Eve 2012, when the Shell drilling platform Kulluk ran aground on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak.

“Well before the rig hit land in rough seas, IBR response team leaders were embedded in the command center, working with industry and governmental agencies to develop a wildlife plan that would safely and effectively collect oiled wildlife,” officials wrote. “We prepared for a worst-case scenario as international attention mounted. In the end, the island, the sea and the animals that call it home were spared any spill. But our partnership with trustee agencies and industry was only strengthened to prepare for any future accident.”

IBR spokesperson Karen Benzel says the facility offers staff an opportunity to apply the lessons they’ve developed over decades of caring birds to animals in Alaska. While other groups also work with bird rescue, Benzel emphasizes the skill of IBR workers in their field.

“We’re way ahead of the curve on bird treatment techniques,” Benzel said.

In a statement on the process leading up to the new center, IBR officials say it will occupy a unique position in contingency planning for natural-resources crises in the state.

“As the only ‘turnkey’ wildlife center in the state dedicated to emergency response, the 4,800-square-foot facility provides a foundation for all of our work in the region, spanning comprehensive contingency planning, preparedness training and oiled bird care -- from stabilization to release,” officials wrote.

According to Benzel the center, which will better address the needs of caring for oiled wildlife, has been in the works since late last year.

Channel 2's Tracy Sabo contributed information to this story.