By Alexandria Sage
VENICE, Louisiana (Reuters) - The cattle in these parts don't seem to mind the helicopters hauling oil booms overhead, nor the response boats hurrying past their banks.
But the oil that British energy giant BP is scrambling to clean up from its massive Gulf of Mexico spill threatens the animals' grazing land and the income of the ranchers who own them.
Over 1,000 head of cattle graze on marshy islands off Louisiana's southeast tip and thousands more are found in the coastal low-lying pastures highly susceptible to flooding.
The petroleum and cattle industries have managed to co-exist over the years. But now, ranchers fear a hurricane in this watery southeastern area of the state could wash the oil onto grazing land, poisoning their livestock and ruining their value.
"We don't have a clue what this oil will do," said Robert Joyner, who heads the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association. "It's a whole 'nother ball game."
Louisiana is home to about 450,000 head of cattle valued last year at $365 million. But the best pasture land is in the coastal south, where cattle can graze year-round.
Even before the oil spill it was a challenge being a cattleman here, where many animals can only be moved by barge. Calves succumb to alligators and snake bites, corrals need constant maintenance amid the quick-growing vegetation, and erosion and rising water levels steal valuable pasture every year. And then there are the hurricanes.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 killed 1,800 of Earl Armstrong's cattle. The next hurricane could pack a double wallop, with the additional danger of toxins brought ashore.
"I'm not being happy with the oil right now," said Armstrong, whose cattle graze at the mouth of the Mississippi River, not far from the oil spill clean-up's command center. "I don't know when it's going to come in on that cattle where they have to eat that grass. It's a wait-and-see deal."
Ranchers see themselves ending up last on BP's compensation list after the oystermen, shrimpers and others who have lost their livelihoods due to the spill are taken care of under BP's $20 billion fund.
"They want to know if there is a state or federal program to reimburse them for the losses and the answer now is no," said Dr. Mike Strain, the state's commissioner of agriculture and forestry.
OIL AND CATTLE DON'T MIX
Early this month, Strain's agency warned coastal cattle producers that their livestock would not be allowed to go to slaughter if oil contaminates inland pastures.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is estimating exposure levels to dangerous chemicals if oil washes ashore and identifying appropriate tests, said FSIS spokesman Brian Mabry.
The average cow here is worth about $1,000, but it would cost about double that to transport and incinerate any deemed unfit for the food supply chain, said Strain.
That means ranchers are scrambling to plan for a sudden evacuation of cattle ahead of a hurricane.
Cattle ranchers from areas unaffected by a hurricane have volunteered to bring trucks and trailers to help in transport, Joyner said, but finding a place to put the relocated cattle is one of a number of problems to be dealt with.
But cattlemen here are loathe to transport their animals unnecessarily, given the difficult logistics and stress to the animals.
"Daddy's here, boys!" shouts Philip Simmons from his flatboat on the Mississippi, catching a glimpse of two of his Brangus bulls grazing the native grasses at water's edge.
Simmons' family has been grazing cattle for generations on land that's surrounded by backwater canals, natural bayous and the Mississippi, a watery oasis of mangroves and willows and wildlife like cranes and spoonbills.
"My cattle feed all the way to the water here," he said, pointing to the bank of a winding canal, where one group gazed out quizzically from under a canopy of trees and high grasses.
"How am I going to get them out," asked Simmons. "You'd have to get a helicopter to run them out of this grass. And it's so hot it'll kill them. So I'm just playing it by ear. Hopefully I'll come out on the winning end."
(Editing by Eric Beech)