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He's A Wildlife Biologist With A Mission

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise


Scanning a tidal bay will his scuffed but true binoculars, biologist Bill Radke leans out the window of his government-issue Chevy pickup and surveys a crowd of shore birds munching on bugs hiding in the muck.

It's the regular bunch, black-necked skimmers skittering across shimmery shallows, statuesque snow white egrets, ducks and a rare albino grebe, marshland residents Radke, 35, knows well after three years as the refuge biologist

"On the one hand it's depressing. You really wonder if there' any room for wildlife anymore. But on the other hand, this is a place where you can really see results of your actions. There's some real rewards."

Bill Radke, wildlife biologist

Framed by deep blue sky, the scene belongs on an Audubon calendar. But Radke knows something is wrong with the picture.

Like a gardener watching as an unseen pest ravages his field, Radke presides over an environment under assault. Tucking the binoculars on the dusty seat, he eases the truck down the bumpy dirt road, over a levy and back to the refuge headquarters.

"There's still a lot of birds, but it's not in the numbers it used to be...This is not a normal refuge," Radke said.

No argument there. The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1930 as a haven for wildlife. But today it is threatened by human influences.

The land around it has been transformed into an endless patchwork of tilled farmland. Giant geothermal power plants dominate the flat landscape. About 97 percent of the refuge is under water, flooded when the sea rose a decade ago.

Water in the area is so polluted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spends about $60,000 annually on clean water for the refuge's wetlands and food crops for birds.

Pollution is up. Shore bird populations are down.

The number of great blue herons nesting at the refuge has declined by 95 percent. Cattle egrets, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons and double-crested cormorants no longer nest there. Pollution, shooters, declining fish populations and submerged habitat are the reasons why, Radke said.

The Salton Sea is worlds away from Radke's previous assignments at pristine refuges in Oregon and Washington. At the sea, he searches for selenium-induced bird deformities. Last year he collected hundreds of soggy, eared grebe carcasses mysteriously washed ashore.

"I wanted to do something where I could make a difference so I came to Southern California, the epicenter of extinction," Radke said.

Back at refuge headquarters near Calipatria, the merciless sun has driven Radke indoors. It's noon on a bright June day. Radke has already logged eight hours, but he's working longer these days trying to catalog the damage to critters entrusted to his care.

Inside the lab, a researcher from Maryland's Patuxent Wildlife Center snips the head off a night heron chick and peels its featherless body open like an orange. It's a grim exercise to extract its peanut-size liver to measure how much selenium-laced food the bird was eating.

Across the room is a refrigerator that contains dozens of chilled, baby food-size bottles packed with tiny pieces of flesh, matted feathers and an occasional beak. They are dead egret chicks awaiting shipment for more toxicological studies.

"There was one or two chicks that had looked suspiciously like deformities. Their beaks weren't normal," Radke said. More study is needed before the injury can be linked to toxic pollution, he added.

It is a surreal, but not unfitting, end to Radke's day. He started the morning gathering eggs bearing telltale dents and cracks from DDT poisoning and measuring gawky, fuzz-covered egret nestlings for growth impairment.

The Salton Sea refuge, he acknowledges, is not a place biologists are lined up to get to.

"On the one hand it's depressing. You really wonder if there's any room for wildlife anymore. But on the other hand, this is a place where you can really see results of your actions. There's some real rewards," he said.

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