Funds from companies responsible for the largest ocean oil spill in history will be used to preserve sensitive wildlife habitat in South Padre Island, including for endangered sea turtles.

Starting this month, international environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy will close on two deals in 2019 to acquire a total of nearly 6,300 acres on the South Texas barrier island. The preserved wildlife habitat ranges from beaches along the Gulf of Mexico to vegetated dunes and tidal flats adjacent to the Laguna Madre, a shallow body of water between the island and the mainland.

A map of the preserve land recently purchased by The Nature Conservancy.
A map shows the preserve land recently purchased by The Nature Conservancy. Credit: Courtesy / The Nature Conservancy

The habitat is an important nesting ground for the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the rarest of the world’s seven sea turtle species, which only nests in the U.S. and Mexico. Scientists with the Sea Turtle Conservancy estimate that between 7,000 and 9,000 nesting females exist in the wild, with more nests on Padre Island than anywhere else in the U.S.

The land will immediately be conveyed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Nature Conservancy staff. The service maintains the 98,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on South Padre Island and the coastal prairies and wetlands where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

Laura Huffman, Texas regional director of The Nature Conservancy, said in a Wednesday phone interview that watching sea turtle hatchlings emerge from the sand and crawl to the ocean is the kind of experience that changes people.

“It’s magical, to put it in a single word,” Huffman said. She compared it to watching millions of bats emerge from Bracken Cave outside of San Antonio, which The Nature Conservancy also worked to preserve.

“We want to make sure that three generations from now, people will have a chance to go watch one of the natural wonders in the state,” she said. “We’ve got a few natural shows in Texas that are hard to beat,  and this is one of them.”

About $5.4 million of the nearly $16 million in funding for the purchase comes from a settlement that arose from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Under a civil settlement, energy company BP was forced to pay $8.8 billion to help offset the damage the oil spill caused to wildlife in the Gulf and along the Gulf Coast.

“This is a shining example of how we can use a portion of Deepwater Horizon funds to support large-scale conservation efforts,” said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in a statement. The TCEQ is one of the state agencies managing Texas’ portion of these funds.

Another $10.5 million is coming from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which received $2.5 billion from BP and drilling contractor Transocean as part of a plea agreement to resolve criminal charges for the spill.

“South Padre Island is home to some of the most pristine and productive coastal shorelines throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico,” said Jeff Trandahl, the foundation’s CEO, in a statement. Protecting and restoring these rich ecosystems along the south Texas coast is one of the most effective ways we can help wildlife recover from the [spill].”

Sand dunes on South Padre Island that are part of the preserve land recently purchased by The Nature Conservancy.
A sand dune casts a shadow on South Padre Island preserve land recently purchased by The Nature Conservancy. Credit: Courtesy / The Nature Conservancy

The acquisition will happen in two phases, according to The Nature Conservancy. The first, accounting for 3,036 acres, will close this month. Another deal on 3,232 acres will close in Fall 2019, the organization wrote in a news release.

The purchase is the largest on South Padre Island for conservation land since The Nature Conservancy bought nearly 25,000 acres in 2000 to expand Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Other threatened and endangered species that make their homes on South Padre Island and Laguna Madre include loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles, peregrine falcons, and piping plovers, according to the conservancy.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.