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John Myers, Forum Communications Co., Published January 08 2011

Gulf spill may have hurt Minnesota loons, pelicans

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. – Most of Minnesota’s adult loons and pelicans had flown north before last year’s Gulf oil spill struck, but many of their offspring remained behind in the slick.

Now, state bird lovers and natural resource managers are anxiously waiting to see how many loons and pelicans return to Minnesota in April and what impact the oil spill had on two of the state’s iconic water birds.

“The loons that hatched in Minnesota in 2008 and 2009 were in the Gulf during the entire spill. They usually don’t make the trip north until their third year,” said Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Pelicans, he said, also spend their first summer in the south.

“Did they make it through? Will fewer of them come back to Minnesota?” he said.

No one knows the answer yet, Henderson noted, but the DNR and other experts have moved quickly to develop a loon and pelican plan in recent months “so we didn’t have to guess what the spill means for our birds.”

DNR officials hope this spring to begin an intensive, $250,000 study on the impact of the Gulf spill on the two state bird species scientists determined are most likely to be impacted. They outlined the plan Friday at the agency’s annual “roundtable” convention in the Twin Cities.

The money was approved last summer by the Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources while the oil was still flowing. The 2011 Minnesota Legislature also must approve the funding, which comes from the state’s Environmental Trust fund stocked by state lottery profits.

Lawmakers can’t use constitutionally dedicated LCCMR money to balance the state budget, so the project should be approved in coming months, said State Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis.

Even adult loons that were in Minnesota and avoided the spill last summer also may be at risk this winter, Henderson noted. Because loons can dive 200 feet to find fish, they may be feeding in areas where millions of gallons of oil settled on the Gulf floor. Their food source may be tainted or gone.

“The data seems to show that (loons) go right to the bottom to feed in the Gulf,” Henderson said. “And now they’re saying that’s where much of the oil ended up.”

The state loon and pelican effort includes a deeper look at the state’s loon monitoring program on 600 lakes across the state that began in 1994. But it also includes placing a dozen high-tech satellite transmitters on loons for instant tracking and fitting another 60 loons with recording GPS units to see where they’ve gone. Even bird experts are unsure exactly where in the Gulf loons spend their winters.

Loon blood samples also will be taken to see if oil or toxic oil dispersants show up. Experts say there may be a long-term impact on reproduction if chemicals affect mating or egg viability.

But it’s the number of loons and pelicans on Minnesota lakes this summer and the next few summers that may be most telling – seeing whether the classes of 2008 and 2009 that lived through the spill are as strong as they should be and enough to keep the state’s loon population stable. Even though loons are long-lived birds, up to 30 years, losing two years of reproduction could stifle the population.

“The good news is that we have 16 years of data on Minnesota’s loon population to measure from,” Henderson said. “This shows the value of long-term monitoring so when something does come up, like an oil spill, you have something that will show you what’s going on.”

Steve Hirsch, director of the DNR’s Ecological and Water Services division, said results from the study could put Minnesota in line for reparations from BP to recover the value of waterfowl lost to the spill.

John Myers writes for the Duluth News Tribune.