Bird-watching in the Coeur d’Alene basin took a morbid turn Saturday, as 11 volunteers searched the wilderness for dead birds.
These conservationists were trying to document the locations of birds in the area that had died of lead poisoning from mine tailings in the soil.
“The main trend is that lead poisoning is the highest cause of death in this system,” Dan Audet, contaminant specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the group before they set out.
Such waterfowl as swans are especially vulnerable because in the course of their feeding they swallow large amounts of silt from the bottoms of ponds and lakes. The tailings are found in the silt.
Symptoms of birds with lead poisoning include gasping, drooped wings and what Audet referred to as hatchet breast, in which the muscle tissue around the bird’s breast is wasting away.
“Just from our little outing, we saw a Canadian goose that was doing exactly what Dan (Audet) described. Its neck was distended,” said Michele Nanni, director of the Lands Council’s “Get the lead out” campaign. The Lands Council is a Spokane-based conservation organzation.
Before Saturday, the Fish and Wildlife Service had found five dead birds this year, one of which had adequate flesh left to test whether it had died of lead poisoning, Audet said. Test results are not in yet, Audet said. Between January and June of last year, however, the service found 311 dead birds around the Coeur d’Alene River basin. About 60 percent were diagnosed with lead poisoning, the service said.
Nanni did not know how many birds the group found Saturday afternoon.
Holly Houston of the Coeur d’Alene Mining Basin Information Office questioned how much of a problem there is if only five birds had been found before Saturday.
“It shows that the river system is cleaning itself,” she said.
“That’s just what you’d expect the mining companies to say,” Nanni said. “When they say ‘cleaning itself,’ what do they mean? It’s flushing itself into Spokane?”
The Lands Council’s project comes about a month after the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial announcement that it may expand its investigation of the Bunker Hill Superfund site to examine mining contamination throughout the Coeur d’Alene basin. Local business groups and Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Judy have protested the move.
Environmental groups such as the Lands Council, however, have lauded the announcement.
“It’s time for us to start working together to solve this problem,” Nanni said.
That’s exactly what the mining companies want, Houston said.
The mining companies have been experimenting with ways to treat mine tailings so birds don’t digest them, Houston said. She wants the mining companies and groups such as the Lands Council to work together toward implementing the companies’ plan.
“If the government and the tribe cared as much about swans as they do about calling the media, then we’d have this swan death problem solved,” Houston said. “That’s their way toward pushing their lawsuit, but it doesn’t help the swans.”
The federal government and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe are suing local mining companies for contaminating the area during decades of mining. Mining companies have stated that while mining practices decades ago were not as environmentally friendly as they are with modern technology, the damage they caused also is not as extreme as environmentalists have portrayed it to be.
“The point is, we already know some of the swans are affected,” Houston said. “We need to start solving this problem.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Map of area