By Carrol L. Henderson
During the past couple of months, the Gulf oil spill has taken on new dimensions and consequences. First we learned of the loss of life at the BP oil rig, then the loss of the offshore fishing, shrimp, and oyster industries, then the declines in tourism, and then the tragic loss of wildlife along the coast.
Now another, imminent consequence of the oil spill has become painfully apparent. Birds from central and eastern North America will begin migrating southward from July through November. For some of these birds it will be a one-way trip. They may perish when they become mired in oil or face a lack of natural foods that have been eliminated by the oil. Potential victims range from shorebirds like the spotted sandpiper, to ospreys, lesser scaup, and common loons.
Loons have natural defenses against predators, but they have no defenses against oil. They do not recognize a sheen of oil on the water as a hazard.
This disaster at first seemed far away, but the hazard to loons strikes close to home and close to the heart. More than our state bird, the loon is a symbol of Minnesota's outdoors and is associated with lifelong memories of family outings in the north woods. The haunting wail of the loon at night on a starlit lake is a part of Minnesota's outdoor legacy. Now the future status of loons is at risk, and some lakes could become silent in the next few years if loons do not return from their wintering grounds.
Where do Minnesota's loons winter?
Banding studies of loons from Minnesota have demonstrated that some winter off the Atlantic coast from North Carolina southward to Florida, but most winter along the Gulf coast from Alabama and the Florida panhandle southward along the western coast of Florida to the Florida Keys. They use near-shore areas where the water is generally less than 150 feet deep. Areas from Orange Beach, Ala., through Pensacola, Fla., are having severe problems with oil washing ashore.
Those are the areas where loons will begin arriving in October and November.
At this point, we don't know the extent of the threat or what percentage of our loon population could be lost to the oil spill. All we know is that it is a significant threat that will not be gone by November. Unfortunately, there is no strategy that will prevent the loons from migrating or from choosing another wintering area. Their migratory routes are hard-wired in their genes, and most will be heading for the Gulf.
Federal treaties and congressional strategies can help.
Loons are only one of many species that are being harmed by the oil spill, but they are a symbol of how the spill is not just a disaster for the Gulf Coast states -- it is a national and international disaster that will soon begin affecting migratory birds from Canada and the eastern United States.
The United States is a partner in an international migratory bird treaty with Canada and Mexico. Those treaty obligations require the United States to take responsible and aggressive action to reduce the effect of the oil spill on migratory birds and help restore the habitats used by those birds in the Gulf. The treaty also requires a serious look at our conservation programs in northern states to protect migratory birds and provide them with safe habitats in which to nest and raise their young.
The media coverage of the Gulf oil spill from Day One has created continuing news coverage of the diverse economic and environmental effects. While some problems can be corrected with money, it is not possible to buy more loons, pelicans and sea turtles to replace the ones being killed by the oil. They need a clean, healthy and diverse marine environment. It may take years to restore such an environment in the Gulf. No one knows at this point how long that may take --especially since the oil continues to flow. When the environment is cleaned up, then the wildlife can begin to recover.
Wildlife species can recover from environmental disasters.
The endangerment that we saw 50 to 60 years ago with bald eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons and brown pelicans may reoccur with the birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates affected by the Gulf oil spill. The brown pelican could become endangered again, and other species like loons could become listed as threatened or endangered and require the development of recovery plans.
While the immediate outlook for our wintering birds in the Gulf is bleak, we can learn from the wisdom shared by famed ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson when he saw the ospreys near his home in Old Lyme, Conn., declining from the effects of DDT. He said that wildlife species are far more resilient than we usually give them credit for. They can recover from disastrous population declines if people take action to provide and restore a clean, healthy environment, including safe places to nest and to winter, and protection from illegal killing.
Peterson was right. The ospreys came back. The bald eagles, peregrine falcons and brown pelicans also came back, but it took 20 to 25 years and millions of dollars to fund their recovery. If we experience significant losses of loons and other wildlife, they can also come back. If wintering losses continue over several years, recovery will likely be a long term process for birds like loons because a pair lays only one to two eggs per year -- just like bald eagles.
What is the Minnesota DNR doing?
The Nongame Wildlife Program in the Department of Natural Resources is the primary program that carries out loon conservation efforts in Minnesota.
Activities have included educational efforts to encourage boaters to avoid approaching loon nests during the nesting season so that they do not scare loons from their nests and leave the eggs exposed to predation by gulls, crows and ravens. We have provided information on how to build and place loon nesting rafts on lakes where the loons do not have islands or other protected sites for nesting. We have collected loon carcasses so we can learn why loons die. From that information, we have designed programs to decrease threats to their survival.
For over 10 years we have cooperated with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to encourage anglers to use nontoxic tackle so that loons do not become accidentally poisoned by lead jigs and sinkers. Loons regularly pick up pebbles on lake bottoms. The pebbles help grind up minnows that they eat. If they swallow lost lead tackle while eating pebbles, even a single split shot can kill a loon. Studies in Wisconsin and Michigan have revealed that about a quarter of loons found dead in those states have died from lead poisoning.
The Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program (MLMP) is a long-term project to assess population trends in the state's loon population. Since 1994, over 1,000 volunteers have surveyed selected lakes to check on the loon population. Until now, the population has been relatively stable in five areas and increasing in one area.
In addition, the Volunteer Loon Watcher Survey is conducted statewide and currently has about 400 loon watchers in all parts of the state. For some Minnesota lakes, the program has data going back 20 years or more.
The DNR is also collaborating with the U.S. Geological Survey to have satellite transmitters implanted into three loons this year so we can track their movements south this fall. It is a small sample size, but it could help us develop longer term strategies for monitoring the fate of loons on their wintering grounds until the threat from the oil spill subsides.
What can you do?
Many Minnesota citizens feel helpless about what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico. They want to know what to do. They want to jump on a plane and head for the Gulf to help clean up the oil spill and save oiled birds. Unfortunately, helping is not that easy.
There is already a huge network of state, federal and private agencies and organizations like wildlife rehabilitation centers already working on the problems in the Gulf. However, there are still things we can do right here in Minnesota to take action to preserve and manage Minnesota's wildlife.
Concerned citizens can help the Nongame Wildlife Program and its loon conservation efforts by donating to the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff on Minnesota state income and property tax forms. Citizens can also make estate donations to the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program or direct donations on the DNR website.
Contact the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program to sign up as a volunteer for the Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program so that we can have complete coverage on the 600 lakes that need to be checked each year, or sign up for the Minnesota Loon Watcher Program to report on the status of the loons on your own lake.
Contact the DNR right away if you find an injured, sick or dead loon so it can be picked up by the DNR. Injured loons may be rehabilitated, and dead loons will be analyzed for the cause of death.
Report any harassment, nest disturbance, or shooting of loons to your local DNR conservation officer.
Contact Minnesota's congressional delegation to share your concerns and opinions about protecting and restoring migratory bird populations likely to be affected by the oil spill.
Buy a federal duck stamp at your local post office, because the funds generated by the duck stamp benefit wetland habitats nationwide.
Join conservation organizations that focus on habitat acquisition and preservation, like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, and other wildlife conservation organizations, like Audubon Minnesota, that have a proven record of success in dealing with wildlife conservation issues.
No one wants to contemplate a time when a visit to their favorite lake in central or northern Minnesota will be saddened by the silence of the loons. They are an integral part of our wildlife heritage. We need to keep it that way.
Carrol L. Henderson is the nongame wildlife program supervisor in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.