Record numbers of dead birds are turning up this year along the lower Coeur d’Alene River, and mining pollution has been fingered in several deaths.
As of June 9, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has collected 311 dead birds and another 11 mammals and reptiles. Of 18 birds tested, 14 died of lead-poisoning unrelated to lead shot or sinkers.
Test results on another 80 or more birds won’t be available until late July, said Dan Audet, wildlife service biologist.
A Monday press release on the waterfowl deaths had mining representative Holly Houston crying foul.
“It seems to me like they’re trying to scare the public,” Houston said of the agency. “Just because it’s a dead bird doesn’t mean it’s been leaded.”
The agency released preliminary results because of public requests for information about the deaths, Audet said. Some residents who had helped collect the animals wanted to know what killed them, he said.
More dead animals have been recorded so far this year than any time since 1953, when 200 dead tundra swans and 115 Canada geese were collected by state wildlife agents.
So far this year, 170 dead tundra swans have been collected, 93 Canada geese, 26 mallards and 22 other ducks.
Audet attributed the high number of deaths to a larger number of birds migrating through the area this year, and the availability of more waterfowl habitat because of high water.
The majority of animals were collected before May’s flooding, he said.
Many were discovered in areas known to have high concentrations of lead. Swans and some other types of waterfowl ingest lead-laced sediment as they feed in the wetlands.
“We still have a substantial problem in the Coeur d’Alene Basin with lead poisoning,” Audet said. “It doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”
Houston said one reason it’s not getting better is that federal agencies and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe are spending money on studies and litigation instead of cleanup.
The wildlife agency is a party to the multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit against mining companies for the loss of natural resources in the Coeur d’Alene Basin due to heavy metal pollution from historic mining practices.
“This stuff has been reported for years, and the people in the mining companies are the only ones who have come up with a proposal to save the swans,” Houston said. “Instead of working with us, they (the plaintiffs) have been spending millions of dollars to collect evidence.”
Audet said his agency’s research is designed to help determine how to clean up the lakes along the lower Coeur d’Alene River.
While he agrees with the industry plan to remove pollution “hot spots” where swans and other waterfowl feed, he doesn’t believe those locations have been positively identified.
“There’s no agreement on a cleanup plan for the lateral lakes,” he said. “Any information we gain is definitely on the road to restoration.”
, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition